AUGUSTA — A $17 million project meant to prevent sewage from getting into Bond Brook ended up causing more than 200,000 gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the stream and into a nearby wetland.

Bond Brook is also spawning grounds for the endangered Atlantic salmon and the spills happened about when the fish lay their eggs, an environmental group says.

S.E. MacMillan, the contractor that is still working on the major ongoing project for the Greater Augusta Utility District, acknowledged in a recent consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that two instances of preventable employee error caused the discharges. According to the agreement, 26,000 gallons of untreated sewage was discharged directly into Bond Brook and 182,000 gallons of untreated sewage was discharged to a floodplain wetland adjacent to Bond Brook.

Both incidents occurred Oct. 17, with the larger of the two discharges continuing through the night until it was discovered the next morning, next to a utility district pump station and a ballfield on Mount Vernon Avenue.

S.E. MacMillan has a $13 million contract to complete its portion of the project, which is meant to prevent overflows of combined human waste and stormwater into Bond Brook during major rainstorms.

“The whole concept of the project is to keep wastewater out of the brook — that irony is not lost on us,” said Brian Tarbuck, superintendent of the Greater Augusta Utility District. “It’s really embarrassing to us, obviously. Those are substantial discharges, I’d say. We try not to discharge any.”

Tarbuck said the utility district looked into possibly canceling MacMillan’s contract, but instead decided the remedies and preventative measures agreed to in the DEP consent agreement were a better way to go.

Those steps include hiring an outside consultant to provide employee training, increasing site supervision focused on water discharge and erosion control, and installing a pipe to carry discharge water from Mount Vernon Avenue to Mill Park, where unused discharge basins are located.

In addition to MacMillan’s $13 million contract, the project also includes some $4 million in other costs including those for easements and engineering. Work is expected to continue for about another year.

Under the consent agreement, which was signed Dec. 27, S.E. MacMillan paid an $18,000 fine, took full responsibility for the incidents, and took steps to minimize the likelihood of further environmental violations.

Stanley MacMillan, owner of the Bangor-based company, said his firm was completely at fault and it happened because of an employee misjudgment.

“It’s because of our bad judgment this happened; it had nothing to do with the Greater Augusta Utility District,” MacMillan said. “I feel bad it happened. This was completely S.E. MacMillan’s fault. And I told DEP that.”

Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, an environmental advocacy group, said Bond Brook is key habitat for the prized Atlantic Salmon. The group is a plaintiff in lawsuits filed against dam owners on the Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers, seeking to protect the fish.

Figdor said the sewage discharges happened about when Atlantic salmon typically law eggs.

“A sewage spill of this magnitude, occurring in one of the few accessible spawning habitats for endangered Atlantic salmon in the Kennebec River watershed, and occurring at precisely the time when adult salmon are known to lay their eggs, is an event that could have serious consequences for salmon recovery efforts,” Figdor said.

The state consent agreement does not address whether the discharges could impact the salmon.

‘The tragedy of it all’

The larger of the two discharges began about 5:40 p.m. Oct. 17 after a MacMillan employee dragged a trench box over a sewer pipe leading to the pump station. That caused the sewer line to leak.

According to the DEP consent agreement, MacMillan employees noticed the leak, but did not repair it or report the incident to the Greater Augusta Utility District.

“Instead, using a 3-inch pump that was already in place to pump groundwater, they pumped the mixed groundwater and untreated sanitary wastewater to the adjacent wetland despite the fact there was a sewer manhole leading to pump station No. 1 just a few feet away,” the agreement states. “This discharge continued through the night and into the next day. It was stopped only after (utility district) employees remotely checking the pump stations on the morning of Oct. 18 noticed that the flow pattern for pump station No. 1 was abnormally low.”

Tarbuck said the wastewater was pumped across a field and into a ditch, then likely went into Bond Brook.

He said there was a manhole that the wastewater could have been pumped into to flow it to the pump station just 50 feet away.

“That’s the tragedy of it all — it was such a simple problem to solve,” Tarbuck said. “If they’d said something, it easily could have been avoided. I don’t lose my cool often, but I did then.”

That same day a MacMillan employee operating a backhoe near the same pump station struck an overhead electrical line, ripping out the line and damaging a connection meant to be used to attach a backup generator to run the pump station. The loss of power shut down the pump station and caused wastewater to flow directly into Bond Brook.

The firm immediately notified the utility district of the incident, but the overflow continued for about two hours until a sewage-pumping contractor arrived and temporary electrical power was restored.

Combined, the two discharges allowed roughly the same amount of sewage into Bond Brook as might be discharged when a major rainstorm causes a single combined sewer overflow, Tarbuck said. That’s exactly the type of overflow the project is meant to prevent, he said.

Also, in an unrelated incident on Sept. 20 documented by the consent agreement, while silt filter bags were being changed, MacMillan discharged extremely silt-laden water directly into Bond Brook while a section of the brook was being de-watered for the project.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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