After being found in violation of Maine Department of Environmental Protection standards for sewer overflow issues, the town of Camden is nearing a final agreement with the department to resolve the problem.
The Camden Select Board ― which doubles as the town’s board of wastewater commissioners ― approved the proposed consent agreement this week, which now goes to the DEP for a comment period, board review and then to the attorney general’s office for final approval.
Through the consent agreement, the DEP will impose a fine on Camden for the instances in which untreated wastewater flowed into the town’s harbor, as well as forcing the town to adhere to a timeline for remedying the problem — which would require stopping stormwater from infiltrating the sewer system through leaks and illegal hookups.
Between April of 2015 and March of 2021 a total of about 3.4 million gallons of untreated wastewater was discharged into Camden Harbor in over 30 separate instances, according to the DEP.
These overflow events typically occur when excess water infiltrates the town’s sewer system during major rain events, according to Camden Wastewater Superintendent David Bolstridge. The excess water can overpower wastewater pumps in the system causing a mixture of raw sewage and stormwater to overflow into the harbor.
Maine DEP spokesman David Madore said sewer overflows are a common problem for Maine municipalities. Some of Maine’s larger cities ― like Bangor and Portland ― are working under orders from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to also remedy sewer overflow problems.
Even before the DEP issued the initial notice of violation to the town in 2018, the Camden Wastewater Department had been working for years to decrease the overflows.
In recent years Camden’s wastewater department conducted inspections to locate basement drainage and sump pumps that are illegally hooked up to town sewer lines instead of stormwater lines or a backyard drainage ditch. These illegal hookups can allow excess water into the sewer system and contribute to overflows.
In total, 127 illegal hookups have been found since the town started conducting inspections over five years ago.
In 2018, the town considered imposing fines on property owners that were not responding to inspection requests. Ultimately the town did not impose fines, though it did seek court action against a couple of property owners, who ultimately allowed the town to inspect their properties before having to appear in court, Bolstridge said.
The town had been making good progress in locating illegal hookups, which property owners are then required to fix. However, Bolstridge said the pandemic stalled the repair work, since he could not ask property owners to bring plumbers into their homes to remedy illegal hookups during the health crisis.
There are about 16 illegal hookups that still need to be remedied, as well as about 15 properties the town still has left to inspect, Bolstridge said. However, Bolstridge said the town has had a difficult time locating these remaining property owners.
Bolstridge said he will likely send notices to the remaining properties with illegal sewer line hookups in need of repairs in the next two months, encouraging them to have the repairs done in the spring.
“It’s been aggravating to lose two years, because we really want to get this done and stop these bypasses. We were making great progress so it was frustrating to not be able to make a lot of work on it,” Bolstridge said. “Happy to get back to it.”
Bolstridge said his department is also continuously looking for other leaks in the sewer system where water can infiltrate.
Once the consent agreement is finalized, the town will have 240 days to submit a plan for locating and remedying infiltrations, including the remaining illegal hookups.
Additionally, the consent agreement requires that the town contribute $10,000 to an environmental enhancement project at Aldermere Farm, a Maine Coast Heritage Trust property in Rockport.
The DEP will often require in consent agreements that violating parties contribute funding to ongoing environmental projects rather than just paying a fine into the general fund, according to Bolstridge.
If the town violates any part of the consent agreement, it will face a $15,000 fine.