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Wastewater Treatment Plant super: No chemicals released into air

Drumm said the only chemical smells in the air near the wastewater treatment plant came from the 8-acre brownfield next to it during an attempt at bioremediation over the last two years.

Great Barrington — Amid discussions and hearings for 45 units of affordable housing planned next to the wastewater treatment plant, several residents who live near the plant have said chemical emissions, noise and lights blazing in the night make it no place to live.

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The Wastewater Department. L to R: William Ingram, Tim Drumm, John Malumphy, Jerry Morey, and David Soules. Missing: Paula Ely

But plant superintendent Tim Drumm told the Edge raw sewage is treated with chemicals in the wastewater, which is then released into the Housatonic River.

“Not one of [the chemicals] is released into the atmosphere,” Drumm said.

They could be released inside the plant, however, which is why plant employees wear heavy-duty protection as they add chemicals to a machine that treats the “gray water.” Department of Public Works Director Joe Sokul said what “discharges from the plant is actually cleaner than the river water.”

And the toxicity of that discharge, Drumm added, is tested by using minnows as coal mine canaries.

“We do quarterly toxicity testing and test their reproduction rate. They’re all happy little fish. The tests have never failed.”

The plant uses chlorine and pheric chloride, which removes phosphorous. It also treats sewage with potassium permaginate for odor control.

“If we didn’t have that when we process it, the sulfur [smell] would be unbearable,” Drumm said.

The plant, with six employees, also maintains 35 miles of sewer line and six pumping stations. Drumm has worked at the plant for 33 years.

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A view of the southern section of 100 Bridge St. where affordable housing units would be situated. Beyond is the town’s sewage treatment plant. Photo: Isaac Scribner.

Drumm said a mechanical failure a few years ago made for an unpleasant scent that drew complaints. But those are the only complaints Drumm says he’s had in recent years.

“It’s a sewer plant. We do our best to maintain it and make sure its clean, but sometimes there’s a mechanical failure.”

Drumm explained the state requires the plant to remove a minimum of 85 percent of solids and “biological oxygen demand,” which is “a measure of pollutants in the waste stream.” The plant here removes more: 96 percent, he said. That’s 250 mg/l coming in, and roughly four mg/l going out.

Sokul said wastewater plants are relatively new (having sprung from the Clean Water Act) and were paid for with a combination of funds, 80 percent of which were federal. This one was built in 1973. Before that, everything from towns — from mills, streets and sewers — went right into the river.

“In 1973 you couldn’t see the bottom of the Housatonic River,” Sokul said. “Now it’s clear and you can even see people canoeing on it. In 1973 people wouldn’t be doing that.”

Drumm said the only chemical smells in the air near the plant came from the 8-acre brownfield next to it during an attempt at bioremediation over the last two years. A $40 million development plan there — 100 Bridge Street — first requires a clean up of heavily contaminated soil at the former industrial site. The soil went anaerobic when heavy rains pooled up around the site, alarming residents and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials. Some neighbors complained of a variety of symptoms, and those complaints appear to be one reason MassDEP permanently shut down the pilot project.

“Even we could smell and taste it,” Drumm said of those odors.

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The wastewater treatment plant in the distance from Bentley Street, facing the southern border of the 100 Bridge development site. Photo: Heather Bellow.

Drumm mentioned and addressed Adrienne Cohen’s public comments, where she wondered whether a cancer cluster was caused from emissions that might come from the plant. Cohen could not be reached Thursday.

“I work there,” Drumm said. “The last thing I want to do is have disease and cancer. All the [chemical] processes are in the wastewater.”

A handful of neighboring residents have complained of noise from the plant. Drumm says this is likely the motor of a roof fan. He says he runs it at night, but he is willing to turn it off. He said these complaints have arisen only since the clearing of vegetation and trees at 100 Bridge Street removed a “natural sound buffer.” He said he hoped there were plans to replace those, particularly along the southern border of the site between the plant and the housing.

One resident said the plant’s lights at night might be unpleasant for future residents of housing units there. Drumm said he has already cut by half the plant’s nearby street lights after one neighbor said it “looked like a prison.” He says he has to keep a light on over the municipal gas pump, however, since, at the 11 p.m. shift change, police officers come to fill up the cruisers. After 4 p.m., he said, there is no plant traffic going up and down Bentley Avenue except those cruisers.

Drumm said he’s more than willing to work with neighbors to solve any nuisance problems. But of the suggestion, made by residents at several meetings, that the town invest in a cover for the plant, he said would be quite an undertaking.

“If you’ve got $50 million, then we can cover the plant,” he said. “Because that’s what it would cost.”

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