Darned if you do and darned if you don’t.
That G version of an old adage sums up where the Hannibal Board of Public Works finds itself as a result of the current flood.
Since 1993, when floods of any significance have occurred, the city’s downtown sewer system has been closed off so that flood waters do not back up into it. Because the downtown system can only accommodate so much sewage, when the flood wall was built a valve was included that, when opened, would allow the untreated waste to be pumped back into the flooding river.
In May 2011, the BPW received a notice of violation from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) regarding the use of the valve.
The BPW now has two unappealing options: (1) Use the valve, knowing that the MDNR takes a dim view of the practice; (2) Not use the valve and eventually have raw sewage running through downtown streets.
Following torrential rains last Wednesday night and Thursday, BPW officials decided to open the valve and begin pumping. And as of Monday morning the “relief valve” was still open.
“Sometime this week, as the river level goes down, we might be able to shut it. We may have to wait until the flood gates come out,” said Heath Hall, the BPW’s director of operations.
Hall agrees that the BPW finds itself between a rock and a hard place.
“When it’s just a few days or a very short period, then sometimes we don’t have to open that valve,” he said. “When it’s an extended period of time, like when the flood gates are going to be in a week or longer, it’s inevitably going to happen.”
Once the valve is opened the BPW has 24 hours to notify the MDNR. That notification occurred last week.
Hall doesn’t believe the MDNR will fine the city for using the valve.
“It wouldn’t be a fine. At the worst we’d get a letter in the mail that says ‘notice of violation,’” he said.
If the valve had not been used, and raw sewage were allowed to overflow, the BPW would have received a sanitary sewer overflow (SSO) violation notice.
“We’re just controlling where it’s going. This way it effects the fewest amount of people,” he said.
According to Matt Munzlinger, utility planning and construction engineer for the BPW, the MDNR has given the BPW 15 years to eliminate the valve and come up with a new plan of action.
“It’s an open-ended project right now. There’s a lot of evaluations that need to be done to make sure we’re getting the most bang for the buck,” said Munzlinger, estimating that the “fix” could wind up costing the city between $20 million and $40 million.
Page 2 of 2 - In a report on the Downtown SSO Elimination Study provided during last week’s BPW’s Board meeting it was indicated that BPW personnel are “continuing to develop a game plan” to meet the MDNR’s schedule.