The rivers in the Miami Valley causing roads to flood, including the Great Miami and Stillwater shown here.

River warning underlines plant safety concerns in Butler County

An accidental influx of E.coli released through waste from Middletown’s treatment plant last week forced the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the Butler County and Hamilton health districts to warn to stay out of the water.

The release was a rare occurrence, said Middletown Public Works and Utilities Director Scott Tadych, as treatment plants across the nation remove 99 percent of all pollutants that enter their facilities.

“But no treatment plant is unique or immune to unexplained instances where something comes into your facility and inhibits your process,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is the nature of the business.”

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Wastewater treatment plants, also known as water reclamation facilities, treat millions of gallons of sewage a day through a multi-step process. Pictured is the aeration stage in Middletown where biological activity takes place. NICK GRAHAM/FILE
Photo: Staff Writer

Middletown notified the Ohio EPA last week that samples taken last Monday and Tuesday from the city’s treatment plant showed higher than normal levels of E.coli. After samples were incubated for 24 hours, they were analyzed. On Wednesday, the Ohio EPA instructed Middletown to notify the local health districts about the elevated levels as a precautionary measure.

Tadych said samples taken Wednesday and Thursday came back either at normal or below permitted levels.

“The city believes the plant experienced a severe influx of an unknown substance from our sewer collection system causing issues with the disinfection process,” he said. “Treatment plant staff are inspecting local industries for possible causes and we will continue to monitor as required by our Ohio EPA permit to operate.”

Wastewater treatment plants, also known as water reclamation facilities, protect the public health and environment through removing oxygen-depleting solids with potentially harmful effects on bodies of water. Butler County plants discharge its treated effluent into the Great Miami River.

Each plant has nuances in its processes, but they all remove the large items, like rocks and wood, before aerating the wastewater, including using aerobic bacteria to breakdown and digest organic matter. The product then is disinfected, either chemically or with ultra-violet light, that kills potentially harmful bacteria and pathogens.

Millions of gallons of effluent is discharged into the Great Miami River every day from Butler County’s plants. Plant operators run daily tests to ensure it meets Ohio EPA standards, which does not eliminate everything 100 percent. Small amounts of some things, like E.coli, are permitted.

Fairfield runs more than 6,500 tests annually at its wastewater treatment plant to verify the effectiveness of its treatment process, said Fairfield Public Utilities Director Adam Sackenheim. During the disinfection season, which in Ohio is from May 1 to Oct. 31, he said “the city runs daily tests to confirm that E.coli levels are safe and the plant is in compliance with all permit requirements.”

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In Hamilton, sodium hypochlorite is used to disinfect before discharge, and operators check chlorine levels four times a day, said Hamilton Water Reclamation Facility Superintendent David Jenkins. E.coli levels are checked daily, he said.

“If those results start to increase, then we will increase the amount of chlorine being fed into our final effluent,” Jenkins said. “Even though we only test for E.coli, the disinfection process can inactivate viruses and parasites.”

Butler County’s largest treatment operation is the county’s Water and Sewer Department, which operates five water reclamation facilities, two regional and three smaller plants. In 2019, 7.7 billion gallons of wastewater was treated by Butler County, and an average of 21.16 million gallons per day was treated and discharged.

Director Martha Shelby said all facilities “are essential to keeping our waterways safe,” it’s important the public helps in the process.

“With a higher demand for the use of cleaning supplies, we are reminding our customers to not flush any type of wipes (even if they are advertised as flushable), paper towels or similar products down the toilet,” she said. “Flushing these products may clog the sewers or interfere with pumping systems in the treatment facilities.”

They can also clog household systems, and these unnecessary clogs and issues could cause additional health risks.

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