EPA orders NTUA to address sewage leak

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued an order to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to replace a damaged pipeline that delivers raw sewage to the Shiprock Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Gregory Bahe, a water and wastewater operations supervisor for Navajo Tribal Utility Authority's Engineering, Construction and Operations Division, provides a tour of the site where repair work on a ruptured wastewater pipeline is taking place in Shiprock.

The order, which was issued Thursday by the enforcement division under EPA Region 9, lists actions NTUA must take to address the situation, as well as deadlines to complete the work.

The damaged pipeline is causing wastewater to leak into the San Juan River, which the EPA stated is in violation of the permit issued to the tribal enterprise under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

Since the leak was discovered on Dec. 6, NTUA has been in daily contact with the EPA about steps the tribal enterprise is taking to address the situation, as well as testing the river water.

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for NTUA, said the order is standard procedure by the EPA.

"We knew it was coming. It's part of the process they have to go through because it is a release of wastewater into the environment, and it is outside the normal discharge permit," Kontz said in a telephone interview todayFriday.

Work continued this week to install a 3,000-foot pipe that will be situated west of the lift station then underneath the river to connect to the wastewater treatment facility.

Kontz said workers are boring 27 feet below the surface, and the rough terrain is causing drilling to proceed slowly. Based on further assessment, he said, the project will be completed in February. NTUA officials previously stated work would be finished on Dec. 31.

Personnel are also waiting for additional equipment to be delivered, which is expected to arrive late next week, Kontz said. Because of that development, which the EPA was notified about todayFriday, the deadlines in the letter could change, Kontz said.

In the EPA's letter, it stated the leak is causing wastewater to collect in a natural depression near the river, and a portion is leaking into the water.

The EPA stated that the NTUA has not determined the volume of wastewater that is leaking or the volume of wastewater flowing into the river.

"NTUA has made a number of failed attempts to calculate the volume of the leak by installing flow meters in the sewer pipes upstream of the Shiprock Lift Station and downstream of the force main discharge," the letter states.

In response, Kontz said an estimate would be provided to the EPA todayFriday.

The EPA is also ordering the NTUA to develop and implement a plan to disinfect the sewage that has collected near the lift station with a chlorine-based compound or an alternative disinfection method.

The NTUA has until Tuesday to submit a plan to address the clean-up, and if the EPA approves the action, it must be implemented by Dec. 31, according to the letter.

Kontz said his agency will ask the EPA to reconsider the use of chlorine because there are concerns about releasing that type of chemical into the environment.

"When the pumps are on, and it's elevating the content of that area, it’s going to overflow into the river. It’s not just disinfecting that pond, it’s going to carry over into the river," he said.

The order also directs the NTUA to test the river water for E.coli bacteria twice a day, prohibit public access to the area, post warning signs and provide public updates every Friday until the spill is eliminated.

The NTUA has been testing the water since the leak was noticed, and an updated public notice was due for release todayFriday, Kontz said.

He added test results continue to show the river is diluting bacteria released by the leak.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.