Vail sewer plant fined $80,000 by state health department, but causes were outside of the plant | VailDaily.com

Vail sewer plant fined $80,000 by state health department, but causes were outside of the plant

Cliff Thompson

Operators of Vail's wastewater treatment plant have paid an $80,000 fine for discharging too much copper, silver and mercury into Gore Creek, pictured above. The plant is now meeting water-quality standards.

Water quality violations by the Vail sewer plant have resulted in an $80,000 state fine, which has been paid by the operators of the plant.

Two years ago the Vail sewer plant was cited by the state health department for violating clean water standards in Gore Creek over a 10-year period, from 1993 to 2003, by discharging too much copper, silver and mercury. But those discharges, the state said, did no harm to Gore Creek.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issues a permit outlining discharge standards. For the Vail water plant, it wasn’t so much modifying how sewage was treated as eliminating the source of contaminants entering the plant, said Bob Trueblood wastewater operations manager for Eagle River Water and Sanitation District.

“It’s always frustrating when we can’t meet discharge limits,” said Trueblood. “These were violations we couldn’t stop.”

Those contaminants came from hospitals, darkrooms, pottery-glazing operations and even households. Discharge limits are extremely tight in part because of the small size of Gore Creek and the fact it’s a Gold Medal fishery. In winter, discharge from the 1.9 million-gallon per-day wastewater plant can equal 40 percent of the stream’s flow, Trueblood said.

“I don’t know that there are tighter standards anywhere else in the state,” he said. “The creek is so small that we make up a large portion of the flow.”

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The minute level of toxic substances allowed in the wastewater plume released into tiny Gore Creek – in parts per billion and even in parts per trillion – that even a tiny amount can cause a spike in readings.

Microscopic problems

The Vail water plant was in violation of mercury standards – 21 parts per trillion – three times over the last decade and silver, six times. The allowable level of silver is 142 parts per trillion.

One of the main sources of silver was the X-ray equipment at the Vail Valley Medical Center. The Water and Sanitation District issued a cease and desist order to the hospital last year, as is required by law. The hospital was very cooperative and has since installed a more comprehensive silver-recovery system for its X-ray equipment, Trueblood said.

Mercury violations were caused by rinse water from dentists in the Vail area using silver-mercury fillings. Most have since changed filling materials, Trueblood said.

Copper-discharge levels proved more problematic for the plant, Trueblood said. Drinking water standards allow 1,300 parts per billion, but wastewater standards are much higher 27 parts per billion. Compounding that is the fact that Vail’s water, generated from wells on the golf course, is naturally rich in copper.

Worse yet, Trueblood said, is the number of second homes in Vail that are vacant most of the year. Copper from pipes leaches into the water, providing a pulse when those water systems are activated, typically during the busy holiday periods.

The water district added a buffering inhibitor – a substance that helps prevent the pipes from leaching copper.

Water attorney Steve Bushong, who represented the Water and Sanitation District in negotiations with the state over the violations, said the mercury violations could also have been explained by a homeowner breaking a mercury-filled thermometer and washing it down the drain.

“It could be a week or six months later and you could get a huge increase in mercury,” he said. The district has been encouraging its customers to dispose of mercury thermometers properly and to use digital thermometers in their place.

Trueblood said the allowable mercury levels are so low that technicians with silver/mercury fillings are instructed not to breathe on water samples submitted to laboratories for fear their breath would contain enough mercury to skew results.

Complicating issues for the Water and Sanitation District and the state, Bushong said, was the fact that the laboratory equipment used to measure water samples failed to pass tests certifying accuracy. Most of the violations from the Vail wastewater plant were within 5 percent of the levels set by the state, Bushong said.

“Its measurements were always above standards,” Bushong said.

But the water-quality standards outlined in the Vail discharge permit have changed, Bushong said, giving the district more of a moving target to hit.

The $80,000 was split into a $45,196 fine and a $33,865 contribution to the state’s Fire Impacted Watershed Restoration Fund.

Whatever steps have been taken apparently have worked. The water plant has not had any violations over the last 12 months, the state said.

“We’ve got a clean slate,” Trueblood said.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com