BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Department of Public Utilities officials said Monday that although they initially in January identified the New Mexico Consortium’s biolab at Entrada Drive as the source of high levels of chlorine being released into the Los Alamos County waste water treatment plant, they can not rule out other sources of chlorine within the County boundaries that are causing higher than normal chlorine levels.
DPU received an administrative order from the Environmental Protection Agency April 4 for violations of the Clean Water Act. The violations alleged were identified during a review of the discharge metering report for the County’s waste water treatment plant. The discharge failed to meet permit effluent limits for pH and total residual chlorine.
The EPA letter states that the administrative order does not assess a monetary penalty but that it does require compliance with applicable federal regulations.
Monday’s position on the issue was different to the statement made by Utilities Manager Tim Glasco at the April 17 Board of Utilities where he did not name New Mexico Consortium, only referring to an “industrial customer”.
Although the chlorine issue was discovered in October, it has never appeared on the Board’s agenda and does not appear to have been previously mentioned by Glasco in his prior monthly reports.
Glasco told the Board the pH violations occurred on two separate occasions when DPU had untrained employees operating the pH meter and that and they just simply took the readings incorrectly.
“We have remedied that and are putting a procedure in place to ensure nobody touches that machine unless they’ve been qualified to train on it,” he said.
Glasco said the total residual chlorine violation is another story.
“We have an industrial customer in town who starting back in October of last year – one of their processes involved use of large amounts of high strength chlorine solution for disinfection purposes and they were dumping it down the sewer line. To give an idea of how much chlorine was involved – when you consider it was diluted in a million gallons of water in the plant, water that has a chlorine demand associated with it because of all the organics in it – and we were still violating going out the back end of the plant which is actually not designed to take chlorine out and we don’t have any dechlorinating facilities because we don’t add chlorine,” he told the Board.
“It took several months to track this culprit down. I say ‘culprit’ tongue in cheek there – to track down the source of this chlorine discharge. Mainly because it was periodic and we didn’t see it until we found it in the plant effluent so then we started going upstream to try and track it. Well, it has of course long gone from the collection system,” Glasco said. “Finally in January, we were able to track down the source of the chlorine. We met with the customer. They professed ignorance that that was a problem, assured us that they would discontinue that process in their operation. I think the words used were, ‘I’ve locked up all the chlorine in a cabinet and I’ve got the key’. The next two months we had chlorine discharges. They obviously didn’t do that.”
Glasco toldthe Board DPU consulted with the County Attorney’s office and was going to have to “take the next steps to get more serious with this customer”.
“Because we have to go back to the EPA now with this administrative order and we can’t just say, well we talked to them and they said they were going to do it, because we talked to them and they said they wouldn’t do it and they did. So, next step is we actually have to show the EPA that we are actually taking serious steps to eliminate this which will most likely involve requiring the customer to install some type of monitoring equipment on their discharge to verify that they are not discharging chlorine again,” he said.
Glasco told the Board the good news is that the existing sewer usage ordinance in the County is all DPU needs to enforce the action against the customer.
“I guess if it continues and nothing else works, the last resort is we actually have to take them to court and then there’s civil and criminal penalties associated with that,” he said.
Board members did not ask any questions of Glasco and he quickly moved on to the next item in his report.
Glasco told the Los Alamos Reporter Tuesday morning, however, that he “spoke too hastily” at the April 17 Board meeting. He said he only found out about the chlorine issue himself when the correspondence from the EPA dated April 4 was received April 15. He said there was a rush to judgment and that it is now believed that New Mexican Comsortium may be one of several sources.
Records obtained by the Los Alamos Reporter indicate that DPU wrote Jan. 29 to Jaime Martinez-Barber, manager of the New Mexico Consortium biolab at Entrada Drive notifying him of their findings that the company had released chlorine levels in excess of 2.20 mg/l on Jan. 18 and 6.00 mg/l on Jan. 23.
In an internal memo, DPU’s Jennifer Baca reported to management Feb. 1 that Martinez-Barber said when he was made aware of the chlorine issue Jan. 28, he locked away all chlorine at his facility and proceeded to using the autoclave. DPU officials reportedly met with New Mexico Consortium again when the levels of chlorine were still high but felt the company was taking the agreed-upon measures.
DPU is purchasing portable monitoring equipment to test for chlorine use in manholes downstream from facilities throughout the County that use chlorine (such as swimming pools) and is attempting to locate sources other than New Mexico Consortium. The daily chlorine level on Monday was “non-detect”, according to DPU.
New Mexico Consortium CEO Dr. Steven Buelow told the Los Alamos Reporter Tuesday that when DPU notified them Jan. 28 of the high reading from the sewer outside their facility, they immediately changed their procedure to use hydrogen peroxide and the autoclave. He said the only chlorine used by the company since has been two cups of bleach per month for laundry. He said the company uses some 20,000 to 80,000 gallons of water a month. The company had been using chlorine to disinfect glass beakers and graduated tubes.
“We reached out to DPU officials this morning because if we’re a concern we certainly want to fix it,” Buelow said, adding that DPU’s tests are indicating that chlorine leaving their facility is below the detection level.
DPU spokesperson Julie Williams-Hill said Tuesday that New Mexico Consortium officials have been cooperating fully and that DPU is continuing to investigate possible sources of chlorine and have not ruled anyone out.
The EPA administrative order states that each incidence in which pollutants are discharged by DPU is considered a violation. DPU has 30 days from April 4 to correct the violations and have the waste water treatment plant in compliance. If the problem can’t be fixed within that time frame, DPU has to file a comprehensive written plan within “the shortest possible time”. Issuance of the administrative order is not to be deemed an election by the EPA to forego administrative or judicial civil or criminal action to seek penalties or fines, the EPA order states.