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Elkhart to Ontwa: Cut down on toxic sewage

The city of Elkhart is taking action against Ontwa Township after finding elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide in its sewage for more than 19 months.
Posted on July 16, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on July 16, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

ELKHART — Fed up with the slow pace of progress, the city of Elkhart has taken a rare step in its relationship with Ontwa Township.

Ontwa collects and sends sewage to Elkhart for treatment. The city contends that the township, which includes the city of Edwardsburg, was responsible for a large amount of corrosive chemical damage that led to the collapse of a manhole in 2011 and significant damage to more than 150 yards of sewer line.

Although repairs to the infrastructure were completed last week by Ontwa, Elkhart officials continue to worry about elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, according to Lynn Brabec, environmental compliance supervisor with the city’s utility department.

On Tuesday, July 17, the Elkhart Board of Public Works approved a consent order demanding the township take steps to reduce the level of hydrogen sulfide found in the sewage lines coming from Ontwa.

Officials first learned of the problem in December 2011 when a manhole collapsed and workers discovered the corrosion.

Hydrogen sulfide is created when wastewater includes strong, highly organic waste. When the sewage reaches areas exposed to air, the hydrogen sulfide combines with oxygen in the air and produces sulfuric acid, which is extremely corrosive and forms like condensation on the interior of pipes.

Aside from being corrosive, sulfuric acid is extremely hazardous and can be deadly.

The chemical reaction hasn’t caused any damage at the treatment plant in Elkhart, Brabec said.

“We’re more concerned about the collection system and the workers in the collection system that have to work out there,” Brabec said.

The consent order outlines eight deadlines, written updates and approval of a new agreement with the city.

The order requires Ontwa to install relief valves and monitoring devices so that hydrogen sulfide levels are lowered to five parts per million by Nov. 13.

Each deadline includes a penalty. The initial fine is $1,000, but the agreement includes fines of $1,750 to $2,500 for repeat offenses.

Representatives of Ontwa signed the agreement prior to Tuesday’s meeting when the city’s board of works approved the plan.

John Brielmaier, the township supervisor, attended Tuesday’s meeting and pledged Ontwa would attempt to comply.

Brielmaier said the township has spent nearly $100,000 to repair two manholes and install a new lining along 528 feet of pipe.

The city released a two-page timeline of events to highlight what they believe has been slow progress on the part of the township in rectifying the issues.

After several correspondences in which the city cited high levels of hydrogen sulfide, an attorney for the city contacted Ontwa in February and listed remaining problems.

After another series of correspondences, the city in late May issued a notice of violation with a compliance order.

Brielmaier blamed the nature of government on the slow progress.

“Everything with government takes too long to do.” Brielmaier said.

In one instance, Brielmaier said, the township had been waiting for a company to film the sewer line. The company said they were waiting for payment. Brielmaier said they had never received a bill.

The project also took longer than expected because officials had originally believed they needed to repair only about 50 feet of pipe, then learned Elkhart wanted 528 feet of pipe fitted with a new liner.

In addition to reducing the levels of hydrogen sulfide, Elkhart is also requiring Ontwa improve its efforts to monitor industries that use the sewer system.

Ontwa is also expected to establish an industrial pre-treatment program in which the township identifies businesses that need to be monitored and establish standards that will help prevent problems in the future, Brabec said.

Ontwa has had an agreement with Elkhart to treat sewage since 2000.

“We went along 11 years and never had a problem,” Brielmaier said. “Everything was going good and then the manhole collapses and it’s like, ‘Ontwa, you screwed up.’”


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