SAN TAN VALLEY — An advisory over a wastewater spillage in San Tan Valley caused confusion over the weekend and led to a defense from a local utility, but the state agency that issued it claims the parties are now working together on a solution.
Erin Jordan, a spokeswoman with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said ADEQ’s primary concern for customers of Johnson Utilities in San Tan Valley is health and safety, and that was the motivation behind issuing a warning about coming into contact with treated effluent.
On Friday, ADEQ issued an advisory to residents in and around San Tan Valley warning them not to have contact with treated effluent, and suggesting anyone who did come into contact with the treated water to wash their hands.
The warning caused some consternation in northern Pinal County, where Johnson Utilities has a long history of sewage overflows, low water pressure and undrinkable water. There were some on social media who believed after reading the release that their drinking water had been contaminated.
EPCOR officials on Monday said ADEQ erred when sending the warning because the effluent was treated to environmental and health standards.
“The general messaging associated with recycled water is to avoid contact with standing water, do not drink (it) and wash with soap and water if you come in contact,” Jordan said. “The advisory is limited to the release of recycled water into Queen Creek (wash). There is no impact to Johnson Utilities’ drinking water systems and there has not been a release of untreated sewage into the environment.”
Both ADEQ and EPCOR agree that EPCOR was discharging treated effluent into the Queen Creek wash, with EPCOR saying the release was the result of overflowing onsite basins. But whether the discharge was permitted or necessary is at the center of the dispute.
Jordan said the release was unpermitted, adding that even permitted discharge does require additional monitoring.
In addition to the issue of the permits, Jordan said EPCOR is “misunderstanding” ADEQ’s concern over effluent being released into the Queen Creek wash. The concern is that the area of the wash where the effluent is being released is the site of a “prior sewer overflow in April 2018,” she said.
“The added water could mobilize pathogens in the soil, exposing people and animals to microorganisms associated with human waste,” Jordan said.
Rebecca Stenholm, a spokeswoman for EPCOR, previously told PinalCentral the water that was discharged was due to rainfall that caused “higher than usual effluent levels.”
Earlier Tuesday, EPCOR officials also provided an update on its interim manager activities relating to Johnson Utilities, which EPCOR has been managing since August, to the Arizona Corporation Commission. Commissioners heard that the utility continues to perform stop-gap measures for the Section 11 treatment plant in anticipation of the complete decommissioning and rebuilding of that plant in the next few years.
In October, EPCOR officials announced more than $170 million of capital improvements that are needed for the entirety of the Johnson Utilities’ infrastructure.
Commissioners also heard employee retention and training continued to be a priority for EPCOR as the interim manager, with employee salaries and benefits being increased to market levels.