City worries about new EPA mandate

Published 10:20 am Thursday, February 16, 2017

Wastewater plant last upgraded in 1987

The city of Ironton is trying to figure out how to deal with a new Ohio Environmental Protection Agency mandate requiring them to take more mercury out of the wastewater.

The trouble is that the city’s wastewater plant, built in the 1950s and upgraded last in 1987, isn’t designed to meet the new requirements.

“The requirements that are upcoming, we are going to have a struggle to meet,” said Wastewater Superintendent Dennis Gumbert. “We didn’t meet requirements last year with what we have.”

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Mercury in its vapor form was found to be harmful to humans and its short-term effects include headaches, dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath. Long-term effects include damage to the liver, the nervous system and kidneys. Mercury never breaks down and if spilled either stays in the soil or turns into a vapor that can end up in fish or other wildlife.

The new mercury limit is a steep decrease of 77 percent from the current level of 53 nanograms per liter to 12 nanograms per liter.

That, says Gumbert, is the equivalent of 12 seconds in 32 years or of looking for 12 particular silver dollars in a roll that stretches from Detroit to Salt Lake City.

The trouble is that the rainfall contains mercury over the Ohio EPA limits.

“The rainwater has 15.8 and they are wanting us to take it to 12,” said Mayor Katrina Keith. One of the highest rates of mercury the wastewater plant ever dealt with was when water from the Ohio River back flowed into the system. The mercury reading was 158 nanograms.

Mercury is a silver liquid metal that was once used in everything from medicine to dentistry to household products. The sale of mercury products has been banned in Ohio for the past decade after the legislature passed a bill ending the sale of thermostats, thermometers and novelty items that contain the metal.

Mercury is removed from the system by drying out the sludge from the system.

Last year, the wastewater plant dealt with 880 tons of sludge that was hauled off to the landfill.

“If you chemically treat the sludge for mercury, you’re probably going to double the amount of sludge that we manage,” Gumbert said. That is because when moisture is added to the sludge it weighs more and costs more to ship from the plant.

“So we are looking at $300,000 plus, just to treat mercury,” Keith said.

The new lower rates take effect on Sept. 1. The Ironton wastewater plant is up for its permit renewal on Sept. 30.

Gumbert said he also expects to get new limits for phosphorus that the wastewater plant will have to deal with.

“We’ve looked at 14 months worth of data on phosphorus,” Gumbert said. Phosphorus is a concern for the state because it leads to blue-green algae, which blooms in warm or stagnant water.

In 2014, the City of Toledo sent out a “do not drink or boil” advisory about its tap water to more than a half-million of its customers after it infected their water system. Blue-green algae contains a toxin called microcystin which feeds off of phosphorous and nitrogen, and it causes vomiting, nausea, and dizziness as well as liver damage.

Gumbert said there are chemicals that take out both mercury and phosphorous, it just costs money.

The cost to upgrade the wastewater plant is steep, somewhere around “a low end of $20 million,” Gumbert said. “Our plant isn’t designed to meet the EPA standards so we would have to build or do a redesign of the equipment in the plant.”

Keith said that changes are coming in some form or fashion.

She said she has considered how to approach City Council about raising the wastewater rate, which is $5 per thousand gallons. That is the same price it has been since 1987. Regionally, only Ashland and Athens have rates under $5. Huntington’s rate is $6.58. Portsmouth and New Boston residents pay $11 per thousand gallons. South Point rate is $19.25 for residents in the village and $24.75 for those outside the village.

“We are below probably 99 percent of everyone around here on taxes,” she said. “Do we want to raise rates? Nobody wants to raise rates. But is that the reality society lives in? No, we have to meet the demands.”