Johnson Utilities sewage overflow

Tape blocks off an area where raw sewage flowed into the Queen Creek wash from a manhole connected to Johnson Utilities’ Pecan Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant earlier this year.

SAN TAN VALLEY — The Johnson Utilities evidentiary hearings concluded with CEO Gary Drummond painting a picture of a utility that, while having gone through some difficulties, has been steadily improving and nearing compliance, if only the commission would give it the chance.

“I feel like we’ve made significant progress and I’d like to have the opportunity to continue to do that,” Drummond said. “We’ve done the heavy lifting over the last 12 months and I’d like the opportunity to cross the finish line.”

However, during the hearing itself the utility was besieged by significant incidents at both the Section 11 Wastewater Treatment Plant and the Pecan Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant that pose a threat to public health and safety.

On the eve of the start of the hearing, residents began posting photos on social media of what appeared to be a massive raw sewage spill at the Pecan Creek Plant. Resident Kim Barrett-Vigil said that a cleanup crew told her that a “little spill” had occurred.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has since confirmed in reports that Johnson Utilities reported a spill of 65,000 gallons of raw sewage, which overflowed out a manhole on the corner of Kelly Lane and Harold Drive outside the plant’s bounds, overflowing into the Queen Creek Wash.

“Perhaps the employee that told me it was ‘a little spill’ needs a refresher on his volume measurements,” Barrett-Vigil said.

On April 26, four weeks after the reports of the spill and after utility cleanup crews had left the scene, ADEQ inspectors still noted signs of the sewage spill.

“In the concrete spillway and retention basin adjacent to the housing community, ADEQ personnel observed non-stormwater residual material left from recent SSOs (raw sewage spills), like toilet paper, tissue paper, sanitary products, within the concrete spillway and within the retention area left from recent SSO events that had not been properly cleaned up by the Pecan WRP personnel,” the report reads. “Visual evidence suggests these materials were left from recent hazardous unauthorized discharges that occurred due to lift station failure at Pecan Creek.”

Aside from visual evidence of the spill, ADEQ officials collected soil and water samples from outside the facility bounds in the wash and found levels of E. coli that exceeded federal guidelines. While there are no legal guidelines that dictate correct levels for these measures, the soil sample results showed what ADEQ public information officer described as “high” levels of E. coli, fecal coliform and nitrates, as compared to background levels in the soil.

ADEQ is still in internal discussions on a response to the samples and is considering forwarding the issue to Arizona Department of Health Services. The notice of violation states that the spill was due to a malfunction of a sensor unit at the Pecan facility lift station.

The Section 11 plant in San Tan Valley also had a series of violations during the hearings. The plant has long been the site of hydrogen sulfide air violations, 108 taking place between 2015 and 2017. According to testimony by Pinal County Air Quality Control Director Mike Sundblom, none of these violations was reported by the utility, even though it is monitoring for the gas itself, but by citizens who complained and the county’s own hydrogen sulfide monitor.

Meanwhile on April 27, ADEQ issued a separate notice of violation to Johnson Utilities that details the unauthorized release of partially treated sewage at the Section 11 plant on April 17. Inspectors discovered that the utility failed to record the unauthorized discharges as required by law. The company was also cited for failing to maintain this same logbook on Feb. 27.

The report further details a pattern of submitting blatantly inaccurate reports to ADEQ going back to the year 2017. When effluent flow readings from the plant were requested by ADEQ officials, data the utility is required to keep, the monthly averages for the second quarter of 2017 were repeated for the third and fourth quarters, suggesting the data had simply been copied over and not accurately recorded, as it is extremely improbable they could be exactly the same for all three quarters.

Further, the daily flows in the Excel workbook sent to ADEQ as requested by an inspector for the second, third and fourth quarters of 2017 do not match the self-monitoring reports that had been previously submitted to ADEQ for that year, demonstrating a pattern of failure to accurately report effluent flows in that plant.

The county could have fined Johnson Utilities $10,000 per violation, up to $1,008,000, but it would have had to take the case to court. Instead, on Aug. 21, Johnson Utilities agreed to pay $20,000 and to file a plan to change operations at the plant to keep hydrogen sulfide emissions within the legal limit.

Sundblom also confirmed that prior to the settled fine, Johnson Utilities submitted documents to the county that it had plans to build a closed mechanical plant, unlike the open lagoon-style one currently operating, which would considerably cut down on hydrogen sulfide emissions. The project was expected to cost about $2.5 million, and the company was committed to putting up the capital.

However, at some point those plans were nixed in favor of modest changes to the current plant and adding additional chemicals to the process to hinder the creation of hydrogen sulfide. Sundblom did not fully explain why the plans changed but insisted that there was no quid-pro-quo between the county and the utility to lower the fine in exchange for a new plant, which was never built.

Sundblom, County Supervisor Todd House and Johnson Utilities officials defended the utility’s record since that order of abatement during the hearing, arguing that modifications to operations in the plant had been successful in lowering emissions, with utility officials arguing that their recent record on emissions showed the mechanical plant was not necessary.

However, the record of recent violations, many of which occurred during the actual hearing, contradicts the narrative of improvement. There have been 24 hydrogen sulfide exceedances recorded at the Section 11 plant between February and May 25 of 2018.

Utility officials refused to recognize many of these violations, and they are not enforceable by the county because of an agreement between the county and Johnson Utilities that stipulates only readings by the monitors at a maintenance shed owned by Johnson Utilities are to be considered valid. Many of the readings were recorded by a second monitor that was placed at a residence after an activist group started by residents, the United Citizens, pressured the county to add another one.

James Taylor, project manager of GHD Inc., testified that based on the size of the facility and the properties of hydrogen sulfide gas, that 20 to 40 monitors would be needed to accurately assess emissions coming from the facility. GHD Inc. was hired by the utility to perform an analysis of the operations and assist in improvement. That analysis of the utility’s operations was overwhelmingly positive.

However, utility officials did not take responsibility for these recent violations and even tried to call into question whether it could be proved that the emissions originated from the plant.