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Conservation group takes Driggs to task over water treatment plant


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DRIGGS — An Idaho conservation group says Driggs has one of the worst polluting water treatment plants in the state. The city and a local water watchdog acknowledge the violations but say looking only at the numbers doesn’t tell the whole story.

At the end of June, the Idaho Conservation League sent a letter to the City of Driggs asking them to take action on the violations. The group also recently sent an editorial to area newspapers, including the TVN, outlining the seriousness of the pollution.

“The Driggs facility has been violating its permit for years – that is to say that the problem at Driggs is long standing. And, the magnitude of the violations is pretty shocking,” wrote ICL Program Director Justin Hayes. “Frequently the facility discharges pollutants at levels many times their permitted levels.”

The editorial pointed out the number of violations of other towns in Idaho for context. It compared Pocatello’s nine violations to the 10 that happened in Idaho Falls. Driggs had 135 violations.

Those violations were in two categories, E. coli and ammonia, with most of them being for ammonia according to the City of Driggs.

Those violations indeed have been occurring for some time, since the city installed a new water plant in 2013 after the old plant was also found to be not adequately cleaning the wastewater. The city installed a new highly innovative system, with a provisional permit and funding from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

The new system, which uses bacteria to digest the contaminants in the wastewater, is designed to produce cleaner water at lower cost than traditional wastewater plants. However the plant has not delivered on the promises of its innovative design.

“Again we’ve been working on this since the plant came online since 2013,” said Driggs Mayor Hyrum Johnson.

He said the problem is that since the plant is so innovative, fixing the system is not as simple as in more conventional plants, but the city has been working closely with the Idaho Department of Quality since the plant opened. Johnson said the DEQ also wants the system to succeed since it’s cheaper and can be cleaner than conventional systems.

“Driggs knows it has a problem and reports that it is working to fix it,” Hayes said. “Yes, it is complicated. Yes, fixing it is going to cost money. But the fact that this problem has gone on – and is still going on – for so many years is inexcusable. Driggs needs to solve this problem now – not in a year or two.”

While the city has exceeded the allowable limits of a few different pollutants, by far the most common violation the city committed, Johnson said, was having too much ammonia in the water that the city discharges from the plant.

Idaho DEQ Technical Engineer William Teuscher also said the majority of the violations are for ammonia. He also said that just because Driggs has one of the highest number of violations, doesn’t mean its has one of the “worst” plants in the state.

“I don’t know if I would interpret it that way,” he said, explaining that some single violations can have more of an impact on the ecosystem that mutiple days of elevated ammonia levels.

Johnson said the bacteria meant to eat the ammonia are not thriving for some reason. The city’s theory is that some sort of contaminant is being flushed down the sewer which is killing the bacteria. He said city staff received a new piece of equipment just last week to try and track down and eliminate whatever is killing the bacteria.

However, he said the city is prepared if that strategy doesn’t work including adding, or “bolting-on,” extra equipment to the plant to deal with the ammonia.

“If we can identify the problem we will fix it. If not, bolt-on solutions can solve this,” Johnson said, adding that those additional pieces of equipment will cost money.

Ammonia is a nitrogen compound. Excess ammonia can cause algae blooms and extremely high levels can kill insects and fish.

Friends of the Teton River Executive Director Amy Verbeten said that the levels of nitrogen from the city water plant are a problem, but the plant is not the primary cause of the high levels of nitrogen seen in the Teton River.

“So it’s very concerning that the new system is not functioning properly, it needs to be dealt with,” she said. “It will make a difference in the overall health of the river and the new system is actually better than the old and it’s not going to solve our problem by any means, we need to be working together.”

She said that fixing the water plant shouldn’t take the focus off the other sources of nitrogen pollution in Teton Valley, including agriculture, septic systems and lawn fertilizers. Unlike the water plant, whose emissions can be measured, it is difficult or impossible to measure the pollution from these other sources, called “nonpoint sources.”

While the plant is a serious problem, Verbeten said, it isn’t the only one facing the Teton River and there is progress being made on all fronts.

“It’s unusual to have a community that is proactive in dealing with its nonpoint sources pollution,” she said. “We need to not lose sight of all of that with the very high profile single issue that’s being very highly managed and monitored. Not to downplay it, but it’s being dealt with.”

The city is currently in negotiations with the EPA to decide how much it will pay in penalties for its waste water violations. Johnson could not go into details on the possible agreement since talks are still ongoing, but once the negotiations with the EPA are complete any agreement would be opened up for public comment.

He said the agreement will likely be made available to the public in the coming weeks.

This article was originally published in the Teton Valley News. It is used here with permission.