Health, environmental and cost concerns loom
Doug Levine, manager of the South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment plant, checks on one of the trio of million-gallon secondary clarifier tanks where solids are removed from sewage. About 17 million gallons are treated each day at the plant, which is undergoing a multiyear upgrade. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
We live in a flush and forget world.
Most of us don’t fully understand what happens when we flush our toilets, or send gallons of water down the drain while taking a shower, doing laundry or washing dishes.
Yet at a time when our sewer lines are aging and our septic systems are being blamed for everything from algae blooms to illness, ignoring what is under our roads and yards may no longer be an option.
“You can’t just put something in the ground and expect it to last indefinitely,” says Jason Pugsley, vice president of Florida operations for Baxter & Woodman, an engineering firm that works with several municipalities in Palm Beach County. “Our infrastructure in Palm Beach County is getting to the point where we need to consider either replacing it or significantly improving the systems.”
There is a huge cost associated with replacing or improving traditional sewage-collection systems — largely coming out of the wallets of water and sewer customers.
There is also a significant cost to the environment, to health and to other existing infrastructure that comes with not acting now and recognizing that some types of buried pipes — though not all — are close to the end of their life expectancy.
While we often hear about water service failures, such as the one in Fort Lauderdale last month that affected about 220,000 people, we hardly ever learn about sewer line problems.
For example, through mid-July this year, 67 spills in Palm Beach County were reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which keeps records of such incidents.
They ranged from a spill of 100 gallons from a broken main in Boca Raton in April to a spill of 2,500 gallons of raw sewage just last month in Delray Beach. That spill, due to a sewer line blockage caused by grease buildup, led to sewage flowing into a parking lot near Veterans Park and into a storm-drain system leading to the Intracoastal Waterway.
A barrier that had been previously installed by a contractor at a nearby project contained 90 percent of the discharge before it got into the waterway, according to the city.
ABOVE: A pair of 36-inch pipes, one from Delray Beach and the other from Boynton Beach, flow into the South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Plant. BELOW: Two screen devices remove non-biodegradable items from the sewage before it is treated. Toys, jewelry and even rolls of cash have been recovered from the flow.
Blockages are just one reason sewage lines can fail, according to local utility directors. Another is corrosion, caused often by the buildup of gases inside the lines, and yet a third — perhaps the most common — are accidental ruptures caused by work crews.
Weather can also play a role in system failures, with heavy rains shifting the ground on which lines rest and causing separation at the joints.
Age doesn’t always equate to system failures. A big factor is the material used to produce the pipe and whether that material is right for the environment the pipe is in.
Improper installation can also be an issue.
“If a pipe is really old and installed correctly, it can last a long time,” said Brent Whitfield, District 1 vice president of the Florida Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Failure has many impacts
When sewer lines do fail, the impact can be widespread and problematic. Raw sewage, in extreme cases, can seep into homes, wash out or flood roads and flood waterways. It also can attract mosquitoes and other unwelcome pests.
Then there’s the indirect impact. Boca Raton Utility Services Director Chris Helfrich recalls being in a Broward County restaurant on Christmas Eve years ago when a sewer-line break forced the restaurant to close — not because of sewage but because utilities will often shut off water service when there’s a sewage failure to stem the flow.
There are also health and environmental concerns that come from raw sewage leaks.
“Sewage can be one of the major contributors to nutrient pollution problems,” says Dr. Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Sewage, he says, is a big contributor of nitrogen, which is a factor in the growth of algae as well as the seaweed that invades the beaches.
Earlier this year Lapointe presented to the Florida Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee research linking septic systems and algae blooms. But he also points out that sewage leaking from failing lines can seep into groundwater and create environmental and health problems due to fecal bacteria and viruses.
Then there are the costs associated with spills — not just of the cleanup but of the work that’s done to keep failures from happening in the first place.
In southern Palm Beach County, communities are allocating millions of dollars in their 2019-2020 budgets to evaluate the condition of their sewage collection systems and making improvements.
“Our City Commission has made it very clear that infrastructure is a top priority,” said Delray Beach Assistant City Manager Caryn Gardner-Young.
Plan rather than react
For those responsible for municipal wastewater treatment systems, the possibility of a major failure or an undetected leak is what keeps them up at night. It’s also what keeps them planning ahead to ensure their systems are structurally sound and properly maintained.
“You never stop your diagnosis,” Gardner-Young said.
Boca Raton’s Helfrich says that the focus is on preempting problems rather than reacting to a crisis.
“Let’s not get into a catastrophic failure,” he said. “Let’s plan, be preventative and be proactive.”
In addition to closely evaluating the integrity of the lines, utility departments keep a close eye on lift stations, which pump sewage through the pipes. Lift station failures, often caused by power outages especially after a storm or hurricane, can also cause spills, but technology is making it possible for operators to monitor stations remotely and respond to disruptions.
Like most cities, Boca Raton is always monitoring its 550 miles of wastewater infrastructure, making sure the lines are properly maintained and keeping an eye on potential trouble spots. Now, with aging pipes in certain sections of town, the city is sinking $20 million into infrastructure improvement in the coming year; it will include roads, sidewalks, water lines and sewer lines.
In Boynton Beach, where the utility serves 115,000 customers in a area that includes about 450 miles of wastewater pipes and extends outside the city limits, $6 million is earmarked in the city’s proposed budget for renewal and replacement of the system. The utility also recently completed improvements to the wastewater system in the Leisureville community.
Delray Beach, which has about 275 miles of wastewater lines, has close to $10 million tentatively allocated for sewer improvements in the coming fiscal year.
Projects are also underway in some of the smaller coastal towns. In South Palm Beach, for example, the town is undergoing a lining of the sewer pipes, with the cost expected to be somewhere between $225,000 and $250,000.
Highland Beach, which has some aging clay pipes, is evaluating the infrastructure and looking at the possibility of using a lining system on gravity pipes, similar to those used in South Palm Beach and Leisureville.
Lantana is allocating about $150,000 in next year’s budget for lining of pipes.
In most cases, lining old non-pressurized pipes is an effective and cost-efficient alternative to replacing those lines.
“When you line pipes, you save money,” says Colin Groff, Boynton Beach’s assistant city manager for public services.
One of the most ambitious upgrading projects in the area is taking place at the South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Plant, which treats about 17 million gallons of sewage a day from Boynton Beach, Delray Beach and Highland Beach. The plant is located on South Congress Avenue at the Delray and Boynton Beach border.
The raw sewage pumped into the plant is first screened for foreign objects — think toys and jewelry — and then filtered to get out grit and sand. Then the sewage is treated with a process using natural bacteria before solids and liquids are separated. Treated wastewater from the plant is either used as reclaimed water — often for irrigation — or injected into a deep well.
Work on the 40-year-old plant began last year and will continue for another two years. It is focused on replacing aging equipment and systems, helping the plant operate more energy-efficiently and adding about 6 million gallons per day of capacity through these improvements.
Funding for the $20 million project — and for just about all of the projects in the area currently planned or in the works — comes not from taxpayer dollars but from user fees.
Utility customers in most communities with central sewage collection systems pay for basic infrastructure costs such as pipes and upgrades in the base rate in their monthly utility bills. They pay for the cost of treating wastewater in the portion of their bills based on consumption.
“All customers pay this part of the rate based on how much they use,” Groff said.
New customers pay an additional fee to connect to the utility.
It’s an ideal time to do work
So why are all of these system evaluation and improvements happening now?
The economy may play a role, say those in the industry, including Boca Raton’s Helfrich. During the Great Recession, many municipalities saw less money coming in as a result of foreclosures and a slowdown in building. With the economy improving and new users coming online as a result of a building boom, enterprise funds are growing.
Another factor may be the improvements in technology that make it easier for utilities to determine the condition of pipes without having to dig them up.
In Boynton Beach and several other communities in the area, a motorized camera inside a segment of pipeline can record a 360-degree view. Geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology is also helping utilities get a better understanding of what is underground.
Then there’s the lining system that towns and cities are using on pipes that are generally not under pressure.
“The lining process consists of inserting an epoxy-infused fabric into the pipe segment where it is expanded, by use of steam,” says Joseph Paterniti, Boynton Beach’s utilities director. The material, which is just millimeters thick, then sticks to the pipe and hardens to a rigid liner.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the focus on evaluating the condition of systems and plants is the fact that infrastructure is aging.
Although some types of pipes — such as ductile iron — can last for a century or more, pipes made years ago with materials including cast iron, asbestos cement and vitrified clay don’t hold up to time as well.
“Infrastructure is aging and all the pipes that are clay will have to be replaced or lined,” the society of civil engineers’ Whitfield said.
With many of those pipes installed in the late 1960s or early 1970s, there is a strong belief it’s time to make sure they’re holding up or are ready to be hauled out.
“Once you get to the 50-year mark you should do a comprehensive review or overhaul the system,” Baxter & Woodman’s Pugsley said.
Next month: A look at septic systems in coastal communities.
How our cities, towns dispose of wastewater
Boca Raton — Sewage from the barrier island crosses under the Intracoastal Waterway in two pipes and is treated at the city’s treatment plant.
Highland Beach — Wastewater is pumped to Delray Beach and treated at the South Central Regional Wastewater Treatment and Disposal Plant.
Delray Beach — Wastewater from east of the Intracoastal Waterway is taken to the regional treatment plant via a single pipe across the waterway.
Gulf Stream — Many homes have septic systems, but some wastewater from multifamily communities is pumped to Boynton Beach, then onto the treatment facility.
Briny Breezes/St. Andrews Club — Sewage is pumped to Boynton Beach via one pipe under the Intracoastal Waterway, then onto the treatment facility.
Ocean Ridge — There is no central wastewater collection system. Homes are on septic systems. Some multifamily communities rely on small “package plants” that treat wastewater and release it to drain fields or through injection deep into the ground.
Manalapan — Most of the properties are on septic with the exception of the shopping plaza, hotel and Town Hall, which are connected to the Lake Worth Beach system. That city sends wastewater it collects to the East Central Regional Wastewater Treatment Facilities in West Palm Beach.
Hypoluxo Island/Lantana — Town sends wastewater to Lake Worth Beach via a pipe under the Intracoastal Waterway for treatment at the regional treatment facilities.
South Palm Beach — Sends its wastewater to Lake Worth Beach for treatment at the regional facilities.
Ocean Ridge septic-to-sewer discussion
The Town of Ocean Ridge invites residents to a meeting of its Septic to Sewer Citizens Advisory Committee at 9 a.m. Aug. 8 to speak about residential septic tank and/or drain field issues. Condo association representatives are also invited to speak about the status of their wastewater treatment facilities.