Water Environment Services manages to prevent discharge of dirty water stemming from power outage in February ice storm

Clackamas Water Environment Services received a worldwide honor on Oct. 19 for being able to maintain wastewater treatment services for nearly 200,000 customers despite constant power outages at its treatment facilities and pump stations during the challenging and fluid circumstances of the February ice storm.

The award also recognized WES's heroic efforts that prevented partially untreated sewage from being discharged into the Willamette River after the Tri-City Water Resource Recovery Facility lost power.

COURTESY PHOTO: WES - Clackamas Water Environment Services employees work around the clock to prevent sewage spills during the February ice storm.

Out of an abundance of caution, WES had announced that Tri-City had "likely" discharged water that was out of compliance with the Clean Water Act but testing later came back showing no violation of quality standards had taken place.

"We were unsure how long the power outage would last and were powering 75% of the plant processes," said WES Operations Manager Greg Eyerly. "So, we took the cautious route and informed the public of the likely potential rather than not notifying public at all and later finding out we were in violation. It wasn't until a couple of days later when the Tri-City Lab was able to run the samples from when that press release went out and we were able to confirm that we were not in violation of our discharge quality."

In October, the Water Environment Federation honored WES with a prestigious 2021 Water Heroes Award to recognize WES' response to the historic ice storm that caused widespread power outages and other damages.

WES Director Greg Geist came to speak before county commissioners after the ice storm. He reassured them that all of WES's generators worked properly, and they never ran out of fuel. Geist said that WES started the storm with 5,000 gallons of fuel on site at the Tri-City facility and ended with 4,600 in store after staff was able to procure more from Pacific Pride and Carson Oil through an emergency contract.

The real problem, according to Geist, was that the facility's two independent electrical feeds from the local grid both gave out — both the Abernethy and Jennings Lodge legs of power. Geist said that backup power generation was able to account for 75% of capacity at the facility. WES subsequently brought in another generator to make up for the other 25%.

WES was just one of four agencies nationwide to receive the award this year from WEF, a nonprofit organization that represents water quality professionals around the world. The award recognizes organizations that perform their services "above and beyond the usual call of duty during an emergency situation to protect the public and the environment."

FILE PHOTO  - Clackamas Water Environment Services pivoted quickly on Feb. 14 to prevent catastrophe when the plant lost power threatened to allow partially untreated sewage to escape into the river. From Feb. 12-23, WES staff overcame constant power outages, dangerous conditions and other obstacles to preserve and maintain wastewater treatment services for nearly 200,000 customers in northern Clackamas County.

"Some WES staff members even slept onsite to make sure our equipment kept working through the night," said Geist, who accepted the award on behalf of staff. "Our crew members worked around-the-clock to keep the facilities and pump stations running. It was a truly inspiring team effort."

During nearly two weeks of weather-related challenges, WES crews responded to more than 1,000 alarms, while its five wastewater treatment facilities experienced power loss and 10 major pump stations operated on standby power.

Despite these obstacles, there were no sanitary sewer overflows within the WES Service area, which includes the cities of Gladstone, Johnson City, Happy Valley, Milwaukie, Oregon City, West Linn and unincorporated communities in the county.

During the storm, WES had no sewage bypasses, no violations of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit and no missed compliance samples. County commissioners commended the quick action of WES staff in being able to pivot and prevent sewage spills.

WES operates and maintains five wastewater treatment facilities, 23 pumping stations and more than 370 miles of pipes. Each year, WES cleans more than seven billion gallons of wastewater.

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.

Have a thought or opinion on the news of the day? Get on your soapbox and share your opinions with the world. Send us a Letter to the Editor!