Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com, November 14, 2017
By: Alex Stuckey
More than two months after Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area, three wastewater treatment facilities in Harris County remain inoperable with more than $1 million in damages, as officials struggle to find solutions to get them back online.
The heavily damaged Cedar Bayou Park Wastewater Treatment plant – which processes sewage from 180 homes in a small Baytown subdivision – may never be reopened.
“The plant is completely destroyed,” said Jerald Landis, superintendent of municipal services for the Gulf Coast Authority, which operates the plant.
Two other facilities – the wastewater facility in Bear Creek Pioneers Park and the U.S. Eco Park near the San Jacinto River – are expected to remain inoperable for weeks or months before they can resume processing sewage and industrial discharges.
Additionally, there are 14 other wastewater facilities in the state still operating with problems stemming from Harvey as of Nov. 3, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The storm’s destruction on the wastewater facilities caused about 149 million gallons of raw sewage and industrial discharges – including about 300,000 gallons at Cedar Bayou Park – to pour into neighboring communities and waterways, leaving operating officials scrambling to find temporary solutions while they tackled the major problems.
It’s not clear which communities were affected or which plants were responsible for the spills; the Chronicle still is awaiting records from TCEQ with those details.
For some, the delay in repairs comes as officials wait for money from their insurance policies and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For others, the wait for more serious cleanup on the site and the surrounding land is standing in the way.
TCEQ estimates it will be weeks, if not months, before those facilities come back online, if at all.
Cedar Bayou Park plant
A faint smell of sewage and mold lingered in the air as Landis pushed open the chain link fence surrounding the Cedar Bayou Park Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Three months ago, the plant would have been humming with activity as it processed sewage from 180 homes in a small Baytown subdivision. But this day, just like every other day since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in late August, it was eerily quiet.
The evidence of Harvey’s wrath, and the 9 feet of water that came with it, were difficult to miss. A dark gray line near the top of the tanks shows where water quickly crept up the plant. The control building, which houses chlorine cylinders and a now-useless backup generator, is covered in mold and remains soggy from being nearly submerged in water. The tanks themselves are filled almost to the brim with raw sewage and floodwater, which officials can’t pump out because there’s no electricity.
For now, the Gulf Coast Authority has been diverting Cedar Bayou Park’s sewage to Baytown’s nearby plant. And with an estimated $1 million in repairs needed to fix the plant, Landis hopes the diversion could become a permanent solution.
“We made sure there was no resident disruption during this time,” Landis said.
Landis said a diversion to Baytown has been discussed with the city for several years, largely because it would be more economical.
“It’s the logical thing to do,” said Keith Hardcastle, an authority spokesman.
Patti Jett, Baytown’s spokeswoman, said in an email that discussions with the Cedar Bayou Park Utility District began Sept. 6 about Baytown permanently accepting the waste.
Baytown currently can treat up to 4 million gallons each day, Jett said. Cedar Bayou Park only treats about 40,000 gallons each day, Landis said.
Jett could not provide a time frame for when these negotiations may be completed.
In the meantime, Cedar Bayou Park is waiting for FEMA and insurance funds, Landis said, but the $1 million price tag to fix the plant is steep.
If the plant is closed for good, Landis said it will be torn down so the property can be sold.
It’s too soon to say if that’s what will happen.
Bear Creek Pioneers Park facility
Where sewage once churned and bubbled through the treatment process at the wastewater facility in Bear Creek Pioneers Park, a layer of vibrant green film now coats the bottom of several tanks.
Park officials aren’t sure what it is – it might be from the trees growing nearby, they say – but it started appearing after officials pumped 30 feet of floodwater and untreated sewage out of the plant after Harvey.
The unusual film, however, is the least of their worries. The more than 2,000-acre park, which sits in the Addicks Reservoir and is visited by thousands of people each week, still looks like a bomb exploded there two months after the storm. As of last week, trees still were downed, doors still were hanging off hinges, and certain roads within the park were impassable because of recent floodwaters. Only one of the park’s three water wells was operable and the sewage plant, which treats waste from park patrons and golfers at Bear Creek Golf World before sending it into Buffalo Bayou, was in even worse shape.
Forget the green growth along the bottom of the tanks, the plant’s electrical and mechanical components are fried. A water line 30 feet above the ground on the plant’s electrical pole demarcates Harvey’s level of destruction: water submerged treatment tanks, mixed with sewage, rushed over metal catwalks designed to aid workers and pored through the sides of boxes housing vital electrical components.
Officials are sure sewage spilled from the facility during Harvey, but they do not know how much.
“It’s all just nasty,” said Steve Dorman, Precinct Three Parks superintendent.
The cost to bring the plant back from the dead likely will be in the range of several hundred thousand dollar – most of which will be covered by FEMA, said Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.
But the larger problem, officials said, is that the repairs will take months to complete, a time frame that doesn’t jibe with the county’s plans to reopen the park by Thanksgiving.
“There’s a lot of work to be done still around here and its a challenge to get contractors,” Radack said. “A lot of people are trying to get things fixed.”
So park officials did the next best thing: They acquired three, 21,000-gallon holding tanks for patrons’ waste. This will allow them to divert the sewage to the tanks, which will then be picked up by an outside company for processing.
Though this will help get the park open by Thanksgiving, officials estimate that the treatment plant won’t be running again until the beginning of 2018.
“We’ll reopen when its safe and sanitary, that’s our concern,” Radack said.
U.S. Eco Park
Not far from the San Jacinto River, west across the river from Love’s Marina and Park in Crosby, sits a swath of land formerly home to Champion Paper Mill.
The land appears to be occupied by several entities, including the San Jacinto River and Rail Park. A wastewater facility on site was permitted in April 2014 by TCEQ to treat stormwater, domestic wastewater and the liquid that drains from landfills. W&P Development Corp., which is listed at the bottom of the park’s website, holds the permit.
The participating industries listed on the permit include CIMBAR Performance Minerals MV, which is a talc powder processing facility that contributes stormwater, and Alamo 1, an industrial contractor that contributes process wastewater.
Other industries that were “anticipated” to send waste to the facility include organic chemicals, plastics and synethic fibers, paint and ink formulating, plastics molding and forming, petroleum refining as well as electronic components, according to the permit.
Multiple phone calls to individuals affiliated with the park, the land, the permit and W&P Development went unanswered or unreturned. The Chronicle went to the plant’s location, only to be turned away by a security guard.
Though its not clear how much and what kind of waste spilled during Harvey, a TCEQ document shows that a “cleanup project (oil release) still” continued Nov. 3.
It will be months, TCEQ estimates, before the plant is back online.