Thousands of gallons pour into river after bridge work mishap
LARRY NEFF/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS State and local authorities are investigating an incident at a construction site in Tamaqua where thousands of gallons of raw sewage are flowing into the Schuylkill river daily after a drilling rig penetrated the borough's main sewer line. The incident is believed to have occurred Tuesday.
Another chapter in the Borough of Tamaqua's ongoing saga "As the Sewage Flows" came to light Tuesday evening after operators at the municipality's sewage treatment plant observed a huge drop in volume.
That type of decrease tends to happen when the sewer line is plugged. Fortunately for residents in the low-lying areas, that plug did not cause the raw sewage to back up into their homes.
The loss in volume was caused by a subcontractor, G.M. McCrossin of Bellefonte, for the PennDOT bridge replacement project on SR309 at the southern end of the borough. Borough officials were able to quickly identify the problem - a rig drilled a hole through the 24-inch sewer line, then the hole was filled with concrete.
Contractors on site this morning stated that everything was under control by 9 p.m. last night and the sewer main was replaced by 2 a.m. today.
Officials had first called the contractor, PennDOT and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEA) Agency's 24 hour hot line, but the damage was done. Gallons and gallons of raw sewage were flowing into the Little Schuylkill River.
Borough officials have been dealing with sewage system woes since it became clear there were dozens of homes operating on a wildcat sewer system, discharging waste water into the Wabash River, which then emptied into the Little Schuylkill River. DEP mandated that each of those properties be identified and then connected to the borough's sewage system. That process hasn't been completed as yet, but the amount of sewage from those homes and businesses is a drop in the bucket compared to the 1.5 million gallons of sewage that made its way downstream.
The subcontractor was drilling holes for pilings for a temporary bridge when the drill broke through the sewer line, located under the northwest corner of the existing bridge. A concrete casement was then placed in the hole, totally sealing off access to the line going to the sewage treatment plant.
Raw sewage immediately began backing up, looking for an escape route. It found the Little Schuylkill River, thanks to a combined sewer overflow pipe that was placed in the area for such types of emergencies.
Borough manager Kevin Steigerwalt explained the CSO as "a type of pressure relief valve which sent the flow into a combined sewer/water overflow pipe, discharging directly into the river. If the CSO wasn't in place, all that sewage would have begun backing up into residents' homes, starting with the lowest lying areas. Either way, we're facing a huge mess."
According to Steigerwalt, the 24-inch line (the Center Street line) carries the bulk of sewage from the borough and Hometown under the river and to a larger line under Sewage Treatment Plant Road. There it merges with a line carrying sewage from the borough's South Ward. The South Ward line has not been affected by the blockage and sewage from that area of town continues to flow to the sewage treatment plant.
Tamaqua Public Works Director Rob Jones spent most of Wednesday at the site, dealing with the mess and dozens of officials as corrective actions were discussed.
"The subcontractor who caused the damage will do the repair work," stated Jones. "We were fortunate to get Joe Hutta (a Brockton based plumbing specialist) to come over with his camera system so we could see inside the pipe." He expected repair work to begin around 5 p.m. Wednesday and then continue around-the-clock until repairs are completed.
Colleen Connolly, DEP Community Relations coordinator, notes the agency is investigating all aspects of the situation.
"The subcontractor was boring holes for the installation of I beams for the temporary bridge when he drilled through the 24-inch sewer pipe. This took place at approximately 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday. DEP was notified of the situation at 8 p.m. The time lag in the notification process is of some concern to us (DEP), and apparently had something to do with Tamaqua Borough employees having election day as a holiday.
We have determined that, on average, 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage travels through that 24-inch pipe on a daily basis. We haven't seen any impact on the fish life in the Little Schuylkill River, as of yet. That could change. Our primary concern right now is to stop the flow of sewage into the river."
Connolly agreed with Jones that repair work was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday and would continue until completed.
"We're working on two things - installing a temporary line to divert the flow directly into a manhole and repairing the line itself. Once the line is repaired by replacing a section of pipe, the affluence directed into the manhole will be pumped to the sewage treatment plant. We need to get the sewage out of the Little Schuylkill River as quickly as possible."
Connolly warned there would be violation notices sent to the responsible parties, once her agency has determined who will be held responsible.
"It's not simple because it's a PennDOT project, contracted to Clear Water Construction, which subcontracted to one company, which then subcontracted to McCrossin."
It's definitely a messy situation, in more ways than one.
During the repairs, employees from Kline's Services Inc, out of Salunga, used three 5,500 gallon septic trucks to suck up waste from a manhole located behind the Tamaqua Community Center on Center Street. They then transported the waste via a rotation of trucks that transferred the waste back into the sewer line located across SR309 on Sewer Plant Road.
As of 10 p.m. last night, employees with Kline's Services Inc. stated they had already diverted over 49,500 gallons of waste between manholes, preventing it from going into the Little Schuylkill River.
Staff writer Andrew Leibenguth contributed to this story.