Estimated 5,000 gallons of sludge discharged in leak at York City wastewater plant

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
The City of York's wastewater treatment plant Wednesday, March 3, 2021. The York City Council on Tuesday approved the sale of its wastewater treatment system. Bill Kalina photo

The state Department of Environmental Protection plans to issue a notice of violation to York City after overflowing digesters at the wastewater treatment plant discharged an estimated 5,000 gallons of sludge.

The upcoming notice of violation comes as initial reports of the March 27 incident, filed by a general manager at the facility, detail that an overflow of two digesters caused the sludge to leak and may have led to a portion of the digester building's facade collapsing.

"We will be issuing a Notice of Violation which will request a formal response with additional details. Once issued, the city will have 30 calendar days to respond," DEP spokesperson John Repetz said in a statement.

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It is unclear how much of the sludge leaked into the storm basin, according to the initial report. It also isn't clear if any flowed into Codorus Creek.

And although the sewage overflow might have caused the roof structure to shift and the facade to collapse, it's too early to know for sure, according to the initial report.

York City and Buchart Horn Inc. continue to investigate the matter, said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich. It is unclear when the investigation will be completed.

“Our immediate plan is to stabilize the wall and to remove as much sludge as possible from the tanks to investigate the structural integrity of the tanks,” Helfrich said.

A collapsed facade of a digester building located at York City's wastewater treatment plant.

On April 3, about one week after the sewage leak, an aged valve on a separate digester leaked a small amount of poisonous gas at the facility, Helfrich said. No one was harmed.

The chemical that leaked was hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous and flammable gas known for its foul odor.

Helfrich described the leak as minor, and he asserted it was not related to the sewage leak the week before. The city's investigation has since been completed.

“Basically, the gas leak was an old valve that hadn’t been used in a long time,” Helfrich said. “Who knows when it was installed. The plant was built in the 1950s.”

According to a report by the DEP, an alarm that detects flammable levels of gas in the air went off the morning of April 3. Personnel were forced to evacuate and call emergency services.

The leak was capped immediately, and the scene was cleared after being ventilated, the report states.

Helfrich has attributed issues at the wastewater treatment plant to aging infrastructure. The city has had to spend tens of millions of dollars in repairs, he said.

Additional documentation about the two incidents was unavailable as of Monday. The York Dispatch has filed Right-to-Know Law requests with the city seeking additional information.

Meanwhile, the $235 million sale of the wastewater treatment system as a whole to Pennsylvania American Water Co. continues to progress.

The York City Council last week approved the final step necessary to sign off on the asset purchase agreement, triggering a $20 million advance payment from the buyer.

The deal now only requires approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to fully take effect.

Pennsylvania American Water Co. officials have said recent events, such as the sewage leak, wouldn't impact the deal.

But now that the agreement is signed, the company intends to inspect the plant for potential infrastructure issues and noncompliance with regulations, officials have said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.