Saturday, October 25, 2014

Better communication would've helped after Goshen sewage discharge

City officials say they played it by the book, but part of the public still reacted in shock and anger — all of which points to the need for earlier and more aggressive communication by the city when public health is potentially threatened.

Posted on July 5, 2014 at 8:08 p.m.

When storms knock out a city’s power, it doesn’t stop everything else.

Like the flow of untreated sewage, for instance.

Monday night’s 70-mph winds left the Goshen wastewater treatment plant without power for about 12 hours. And that, in turn, forced it to release 1.3 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Elkhart River between 3 and 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

City officials say they played it by the book, but part of the public still reacted in shock and anger — all of which points to the need for earlier and more aggressive communication by the city when public health is potentially threatened.

Two NIPSCO leads feed the Goshen wastewater treatment plant. One backs up the other, but Monday’s storms took them both out. Goshen’s 6-million-gallon combined sewer overflow tanks could not contain the onslaught.

“We had to discharge into the river — we had to do that. We don’t like to have to, but in an emergency situation we have to,” Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman told an Elkhart Truth reporter Friday.

Indiana law says that cities must inform the public of CSO discharges, which Goshen addressed through email alerts. It also posted signs at access points along the river.

But if you don’t subscribe to city email alerts or notice the signs, word of the sewage discharge probably came as a surprise. City hall didn’t issue a news release to local media or prominently post information about the overflow on Goshen’s website.

WSBT reported the discharge story Thursday night. The following afternoon, Kauffman emailed area journalists to take issue with the coverage — particularly the TV reporter’s assurance the local drinking water should be safe because the river dilutes the sewage.

“It was based on lack of knowledge,” Kauffman wrote. “City of Goshen does not draw water from the river for potable water. We draw it from deep wells in to the Great Lakes Basin.”

He also took note of a backlash against the city on social media, which continued Friday despite an Elkhart Truth story in which Kauffman insisted that Goshen “does not take lightly the release of sewage into the river.”

Kauffman pointed out that Goshen had released untreated sewage into the Elkhart River only once since 2011. Over the last three years, Kauffman said, the city’s CSO program had prevented 85 million gallons of untreated sewage from reaching the river.

On our Facebook page, at least two people asked why the plant didn’t have a backup generator. Kauffman addressed that concern, as well.

“It would take a massive generator to run the sewage treatment plant,” he wrote. “It would be backup to the backup, and almost never used. Utility customers would be paying for something that added almost no value.”

Jim Kerezman, the plant’s superintendent, said that bacteria levels in the Elkhart River probably returned to normal by Friday. Even so, Kauffman recommended avoiding “full body contact” with the water for a few more days, just to be safe.

His suggestion came well after people had already taken to the water for the Fourth of July, unfortunately.

Kauffman, in his email, said that federal and state environmental agencies understand that emergencies sometimes force cities to discharge sewage into rivers.

“The plan to eliminate combined sewer overflows is designed to address rain events, not massive electrical outages,” he wrote.

If the mayor’s office sent journalists a variation on this email Tuesday, or if the city shared a news release conspicuously on its website, Goshen could’ve addressed public concerns from the outset. Kauffman also could’ve saved himself a lot of heartache.

No media speculation on the safety of drinking water. No accusations of city incompetence or disregard for the environment. Just a clear explanation of how Goshen responded to an emergency at the wastewater treatment plant.

In the next crisis, Goshen City Hall needs to do more than the minimum — it needs to communicate early and aggressively.

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