Dover pump station spills raw sewage into Saint Jones River

DOVER — Complications associated with emergency repair work on a broken 30-inch concrete sewer line caused an estimated 300,000 gallons of raw sewage to be spilled into the Saint Jones River in Dover on Tuesday.

“That estimated total may change after we get all of our calculations together, but that’s our estimate right now,” said Kent County Department of Public Works director Andrew Jakubowitch. “It was in the hundreds of thousands of gallons.”

As of 11 p.m. on Tuesday night, the leak, which took place at the county’s pump station #3, located on Water Street just south of Legislative Hall in Dover, has been stopped, added Mr. Jakubowitch.

In a press release, Mr. Jakubowitch noted that the county was following emergency procedures:

“We have notified DNREC of this breach, and are in compliance with performing the necessary procedures to reduce any further spill at this location,” he said. “The spill is a result of a transmission line break and resulting emergency repair work being performed near Postlethwait Middle School.”

The Dover Pump Station off Water Street in Dover. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

What happened?

Kent County Public Works originally discovered a break in the concrete sewer line outside Postlehwait Middle School in Camden Wyoming in January. It was suspected to have occurred during one of the snowstorms, said Mr. Jakubowitch. Once discovered, public works initiated emergency protocols to address the break.

“It turned into an emergency procurement and we were issued a proclamation through Kent County to repair it immediately,” he said. “We couldn’t replace the pipe because it was underneath the road, so the only way to repair it was through a method called slip-lining.”

With this method, Mr. Jakubowitch explained, a smaller pipe is slipped inside the damaged pipe to block the break. The repair is considered a “long-term” fix. During the process of this repair, Public Works needed to interrupt the sewage flow through the line at certain points to continue work. This was done by closing several valves at their upstream pump stations.

“As a result of closing the valve, we had operational issues and there were spills at pump station #3,” said Mr. Jakubowitch.

Throughout last week there were several smaller spills at pump station #3 in Dover, but the most significant spill occurred on Tuesday.

“It spilled a few times, but yesterday was the worst day because we had to close the valve and couldn’t reopen it once it started to spill because we had the pipe cut open and there was nothing we could do,” said Mr. Jakubowitch.

Why did it happen?

The broken pipe is one public works already has some history with. Mr. Jakubowitch said it broke before in Nov. 2015. At the time, the middle school staff and students were on a holiday vacation and the county was able to dig up the portion of the road to inspect the problem area. However, there was only enough time to apply a temporary fix, he said.

“We were in a time crunch, so we had a few days to dig up the road and see what the problem was,” he said. “With the repair we did, we thought it would last longer than it actually did. We knew it was something we’d have to revisit, but it didn’t hold as long as we thought it would.”

Mr. Jakubowitch sites a few probable causes for this particular pipe’s chronic issues: the fact that it’s in a “localized high spot”, it’s piece of aging infrastructure and that it may have been previously damaged by Chesapeake Utilities when they installed a nearby gas main sometime in the last 15 years. By being in a “localized high point”, sewer gases can collect and corrode the inside of the pipe, he added.

“When we went in there to look at it when it broke before, we noticed that there was damage to the outside of the pipe and the gas main was rest against our pipe,” said Mr. Jakubowitch. “The damage looked like it came from some kind of machinery. We took pictures and documented it. We speculate that when Chesapeake Gas installed the gas main they may have inadvertently damaged it. We’ve talked to them about it, but it hasn’t really gone anywhere. They don’t think they caused any damage.”

To assess the current condition of the county’s sewer infrastructure, Mr. Jakuobowitch noted that the public works department plans further examination.

“There are a lot of older pipes, we’re in the process of starting a program of condition assessments on most of our infrastructure,” he said. “We’re working on a timeline for this incident too, there will be a sort of forensic discussion about this and we’ll investigate what we can do in the future to avoid some operational issues.”

What’s being done?

“The County takes this spill very seriously and intends to do everything in its power to mitigate this problem as quickly as possible,” said Levy Court President, P. Brooks Banta.

After the repair work was completed and the pump station valve reopened, Mr. Jakubowitch said excess standing wastewater was “sucked up” and affected areas were treated with lime to kill bacteria and pathogens. This was done at pump station #3 and at the site of the repaired pipe, he said.

DNREC Secretary David Small issued an emergency order on Tuesday that suspended commercial and recreational shellfish harvest of oysters, clams and mussels in the Delaware Bay as a result. The harvest closure will be in effect for 21 days.

Michael Bott, an environmental scientist with DNREC, said that this is the federal standard suspension, but considering the amount of “flow” the Saint Jones River and Delaware Bay see, it’s a generous amount of time.

“In systems like the Delaware Bay and the Saint Jones River, raw sewage is going to dilute and flush out fairly quickly,” he said. “In a week or two you won’t detect it in the water column. There aren’t any long term affects to the wildlife in the area and the Delaware Bay anticipated at this time.”

He said suspending “filter feeder” harvest for that duration of time is important though because they can “bioaccumulate” hazardous material found in the water column for certain periods of time. However, he feels that the suspension is unlikely to interrupt much activity.

“The commercial harvesting of shellfish doesn’t usually happen until April,” he said. “From a recreational harvest standpoint, there aren’t too many people out waist-deep in the water clamming at this time of year anyway.”

DNREC ordered Kent County’s public works department to increase its monitoring of the river for bacteria and organics until water quality returns to pre-spill conditions.

“There is an obvious health risk whenever wastewater is discharged from a pipe or pump station,” said Mr. Jakubowitch. “There is the potential for human health risks, but they are mitigated to the best of our abilities. We are required to do sampling over the next 21 days of the downstream waters and we’ll be reporting the results to DNREC.”

Although likely the biggest spill on his watch (since Nov. 2014), Mr. Jakubowitch says that the county’s infrastructure seems to have a pipe break about once per year.

“We’ve had about one break per year,” he said. “Before my time there have been some much larger spills, and we’ve had some that were much smaller too.”

Today, the public works department will be completing their work on the sites.

“A line stop we put in the pipe to try to stop the flow to our work area is going to be removed and we’re going to complete our restoration, which includes seeding, putting some dirt back over access holes and grading it flat again.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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