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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Peshtigo Seeks Solutions For Sludge Disposal, Sewer Lines

Issue Date: September 16, 2020

After a set of meetings starting at 8:30 a.m. and ending at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, the City of Peshtigo's Water and Sewer Committee was left with perhaps more questions than answers. They agreed to add up to $23,000 to the consulting contract with Ruekert-Mielke Engineering for design work connected with expanding the river crossing project to include replacing more of the main line that carries sewage from the city's west side across the Peshtigo River to the wastewater treatment plant on the west, but were left no new information as to what can affordably be done with PFAS-contaminated sludge accumulating at the Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Wisconsin DNR has not yet set rules or ground spreading of the sludge, so it either has to be stored until the rules are set or hauled to a distant disposal facility. The sludge has been stored on-site at the Peshtigo wastewater treatment plant, but all currently available storage areas will be filled in about a month, Cowell told the committee and the two DNR representatives who were present for a question and answer session at the committee's afternoon meeting.

Cowell said he knows of only two known facilities that can deal with the PFAS sludge - one in Canada and the other in Oregon. Cost to haul one load and get it incinerated would be in the neighborhood of $800,000, and that would be only a partial solution, Cowell said.

Much of the PFAS in the Peshtigo and Marinette area watershed is believed to have originated from testing of fire extinguisher foams produced at Johnson Controls/Tyco in Marinette.

The committee is to meet with State Rep. John Nygren of Marinette at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 17 in hopes that he can help them find answers to some of the problems, or possibly help find funding to pay for the solutions that do exist.

The committee's day on Sept. 15 began at an 8:30 a.m. meeting held to conduct regular business, and ended with the afternoon question and answer session with DNR Wastewater Specialist Laura Gerold and Wastewater Field Supervisor Heidi Schmitt Marquez, who work from the DNR's Bureau of Water Quality in Green Bay.

Due to blockage and overflow problems in the last two or three years, the Peshtigo wastewater utility is in the process of designing and constructing a new main line to bring sewage from the west side of the city across the Peshtigo River to the wastewater treatment plant on the east side, getting professional guidance from Taryn Nall of Ruekert-Mielke Engineering.

Much of the project involves a 20-foot wide easement across property owned by BPM, Inc., where the original river crossing line was built about a century ago. Negotiations to obtain an easement for that work were recently completed, and BPM, Inc. recently obtained permits to build its own privately-owned facility to deal with wastewater resulting from the mill's paper making processes on property adjacent to the mill.

Due to the overflows and the planned project, condition of the old main sewer line leading to and from the main river crossing had been studied by televised internal photos. Cowell told the committee Tuesday that he has not yet seen all the photos, but the ones he has seen had not brought good news. "We're probably going to have to replace most of it," Cowell said, explaining later this could mean replacing 600 feet of sewer lines from McCagg Street along West Front Street and then across the BPM Inc. easement.

He said the photos showed some major blockages, with roots the size of tree limbs intersecting the pipe in places. The cameras had only been able to go 100 feet to the west from the river crossing and 200 feet to the east before running into major blockages.

Committee member Dan Seymour asked if they could clean out and re-line the existing pipes, and Nall said they possibly could, but they would not end up with a good product. He agreed, though, that the relining material might be good for the first 200 feet, and felt he might have answers to more questions after meeting with the DNR representatives in the afternoon.

He said he will need to move quickly with plans, since he needs to submit plans and bid specifications for the project to the DNR by Wednesday, Sept. 30. His firm's environmental experts have recommended some wetland delineation for the plans, mainly due to the proximity to the Peshtigo River. "We don"t want any hidden things when contracts go out for bids," Nall declared, and added, "I need answers if we want to get funding."

Plans are for Nall to apply on behalf of the utility for a loan from the DNR's Clean Water Fund to pay for the river crossing project, with some portions hopefully eligible for "forgiveness," meaning an amount that would not need to be repaid. He viewed the lines Cowell referred to as being part of the overall river crossing project.

"It's fortunate we found this now," commented Committee Chair Tom Gryzwa. "If the sewage can't get down there (to the river crossing sewer line), it's not going to make it to the wastewater treatment plant."

Nall said he had discussed this issue with a DNR Clean Water Fund representative who feels they will have support from the DNR to correct the newly discovered problems and make this a complete project.

Seymour asked if the need for wetlands delineation is new, since they already know part of the affected area on each side of the river is wetland. Nall said their permits are based on less than 10,000 feet of disturbance in a wetland area.

Cowell also wondered about need to test some parts, since "it's a given that the east bank is a green ash wetland, and the immediate west side is also a green ash/willow wetland.

Seymour suggested just stipulating that those are wetland areas, and omit doing the studies. Nall agreed that would save some money. He said he is looking at replacing 350 feet of line from the river crossing on the west.

"I need answers if we're going to get funding," Nall repeated. He said time is getting short, as the application must be in by Sept. 30, and added. "We don't want to find any hidden things once the contracts go out for bids." He said they need to be sure the contractors don't get in trouble with the DNR, "because if they do, you do."

In the interest of moving the project along, the committee by unanimous vote approved a motion recommending that City Council accept a contract revision adding up to $23,000 to the existing contract for pre-design services, based on time and material, for the added engineering and the tests Nall recommends.

Seymour asked him to try to save some money by not doing the wetland study. Nall promised to e-mail the committee members after talking with his firm's environmental people.

The next regular Council meeting would be on Tuesday, Oct. 6, which would be too late to meet the Sept. 30 application deadline, but approval has been placed on the agenda for a special council meeting at 11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 17.

Nall briefly discussed alternate funding possibilities for the project. He said the DNR is offering 30-year paybacks on long-term projects, and said the original rive crossing line lasted 100 years. the long-term loan would have the same interest rare and would not affect chances for forgiveness. Also, Rural Development is offering 40-year loans on long term projects, with perhaps a lower interest rate and lower annual payments, but no forgiveness provisions.

Moving on to regular monthly business, Cowell reported the lead and copper samplings were done in 20 residences, and all were within standards. His workers were replacing a hydrant on Brown Ave. that day, after which al should be in service.

Televising of wastewater lines on the west side found some serious issues with clay tiles on Oconto Ave., and in some areas there was sand pouring in, Cowell said.

He added they had turned on the aeration system in the old wastewater lagoon basin in case it has to be used for bio-solids storage.

Before the meeting went into closed session to confer with legal counsel to discuss sanitary sewer easements and sludge removal, BPM, Inc. General Manager Jim Koronkiewicz asked if the information they discussed earlier in the meeting would affect the river structure and the easements for it. He asked if council would consider running lines parallel to Front Street and putting the crossing in a new area. Nall replied as far as he knew, they already have a permanent 20-foot easement for the river crossing, and they could work within that if BPM doesn't want to expand it. He assured Koronkiewicz they will repair any damaged parking lot pavement. As far as moving location of the crossing, the ground drops off too much and the lower elevation would cause hydraulic problems.

Those present for the closed session included Nall, Cowell, Gryzwa, Seymour, Committee Member Fred Meintz, City Attorney David Spangenberg, and Alderman Mike Behnke, who is serving as acting mayor during the illness of Mayor Cathi Malke. No action was taken after they returned to open session to adjourn for the morning.

All were again present for the afternoon meeting with the two DNR representatives. After being introduced by Gryzwa, Marquez explained PFAS remediation was the main focus of this meeting. She noted Peshtigo is identified as a PFAS area, and studies are in progress on a variety of fronts. The DNR's Reduction and Remediation (R&R) team is working to establish loading levels, analyzing soils and amounts of acreage needed to spread bio-solids from wastewater treatment plants. Their preliminary numbers are being reviewed, she said, but the R&R team has told her they need additional time and are waiting for comments on the initial findings.

Gryzwa asked if they were waiting for legislative action, and Marquez said they were not, as legislative action is not needed to establish guidelines for wastewater treatment facilities.

Meintz asked if they had a timeline, and Marquez replied this is a complex project, with a lot of different layers. Meintz asked if the time to have standards for field spreading would more likely be three months, six months, or a year. he was told they are working as fast as they can, and she expects results probably closer to three months than to a year.

Cowell noted Gerold had visited the wastewater treatment plant earlier in the day and commented, "You can see the problem we have....Our storage is full and we don't have the finances to send it out to Oregon, so what can we do? ...We don't have the facilities to store it for another six months."

After conferring with the Wastewater Plant Operator Cowell said in fact their remaining storage capacity will be filled in a matter of weeks, perhaps a month.

"Can the DNR help us with ideas?" Gryzwa asked.

Marquez asked if they could use the old aeration basin. Cowell said they might, but if they continue to press the solids, that water sometimes send it back through the wastewater treatment plant again, depending on what the mill is doing at the time. Gerold agreed if the aeration pond area is used for sludge storage they will lose ability to remove excess water from it.

Cowell said they had a proposal from a PFAS disposal site in Canada that would cost 80 percent of the utility's annual budget, and only get rid of one batch, leaving them two and a half to deal with.

Cowell said field spreading could work if the standards for land application were set, but without them, "you could be talking about millions of dollars of liability." He said there are other ways to decrease volume of the sludge, "but those sorts of improvements would cost about $800,000."

Marquez asked if there were off-site storage areas available, but there were none Cowell was aware of. He said it is difficult to find anyone willing to take a product with such low detection levels.

Marquez said she wouldn't want it to be used in a situation where a farm still had animals, but wondered if an unused farm manure storage facility would work.

Meintz commented that would only be kicking the problem down the road.

"I think the city is in a catch 22," Nall commented, adding that they haven't been getting any guidance on the PFAS issues from either the DNR or the EPA, and added, "The DNR is very good at addressing public concerns...I think they might not realize how large of a problem this is."

He said he had attended a seminar on pre-treatment in Green Bay and no one else will test. "I'm concerned that we are not collecting information fast enough."

(It was not mentioned at the meeting, but in July of 2019 the DNR had sent a letter asking 125 wastewater treatment plants to test for contamination from the per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS, and only Marinette and Peshtigo had submitted PFAS samples, according to Jason Knutson, the agency's wastewater section chief.) 

"This is a very important program where you're affecting human health," Nall commented, and compared it with handling of phosphorous content, which is a risk only for fisheries.

Marquez said where they are aware of PFAS contamination the sludge is not being field spread.

Cowell said right now he knows of no place in Wisconsin that will take the Peshtigo sludge. Anything to do with increased storage would have to be reviewed by the DNR. He said there is an old basin south of the wastewater treatment plant that they might be able to use if it were completely re-lined. The wall to the other storage basis was compromised years ago.

"It's important for everyone to realize the significance of this problem," Nall declared. "Farmers around here are pretty paranoid about PFAS...the newspapers have been doing a good job of spreading the news."

"We are aware of the seriousness of the problem," Marquez told him, and then added, "...but we need data... By statute, we need to be able to defend our data." She said initially they had only asked for voluntary testing, but that is changing. "I know it's going to take longer than you want it to," she said, "but we have to deal with the data that comes in."

Cowell commented just to press the sludge and keep storing it would cost about a million dollars, "...and that would not be getting rid of it, we'd just be moving it around!" He added for $840,000 they could get rid of one tank.

Nall asked if anything could be added o the sludge to solidify the PFAS content and keep it from getting into crops. Marquez felt field spreading would not be approved for fields where crops intended for fresh human consumption are raised, but t might be for other fields.

Spangenberg noted JC/Tyco had paid for disposal of the first contaminated sludge loads from Marinette, and asked what assistance the city had gotten from the DNR to help get that agreement. He asked if there was a DNR source he could contact for more information.

Marquez said she will look for more information, and added the DNR is well aware of Peshtigo's problem and they are looking into it.

Gryzwa told her in a typical year the Peshtigo wastewater utility budgets $60,000 to $80,000 to dispose of sludge, "...and now we're going to spend $800,000....and that doesn't get rid of it!" He expressed hope they would get some help from Nygren on Thursday.

Marquez commented there was some legislation proposed about four months ago that would have helped a bit, "but it didn't make it through."


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