Assessments of Bolton’s Wastewater Treatment Plant Lead to DEC Investigation, Arrest and Upgrades

This story appeared in The Lake George Mirror.

Bolton’s Wastewater Treatment Plant “is functioning very well, especially for a plant that’s 55 years old,” consultant Kathleen Suozzo told the Town Board at its May meeting.

It’s been a year since tests were allegedly falsified by an operator, reportedly in an attempt to mislead state officials, and according to Suozzo, the plant has been monitored closely since then. 

The quality of the effluent, in terms of clarity, is comparable to drinking water,” said Suozzo, an environmental engineer who was asked to study Bolton’s wastewater treatment plant and propose measures to improve its efficiency.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, staff members from its Division of Water are also “actively monitoring and (working with Bolton officials) to rectify the situation at the plant.”

Bolton Supervisor Ron Conover invited Suozzo to address the board on May 1 and answer any questions its members might have about the plant, in light, especially, of the arrest of plant operator Thomas French on April 17.

The office of Albany County District Attorney David Soares, who is prosecuting the case, stated that French deliberately falsified mandatory tests of the treatment plant’s effluent, reported the fabricated results to the DEC – a criminal act in itself - and tampered with effluent, presumably in an effort to disguise flaws in the plant’s operations and persuade officials that the plant was in compliance with state regulations.

French himself told investigators “that’s the way I was shown to do it… that’s the way we’ve always done things at the plant.”

The District Attorney stated, also, that French “directed plant employees to open the bypass valve… which allowed sewage effluent to discharge into the environment.”

No one knows where that went,” said Lake George Waterkeeper Chris Navitsky, who was among those interviewed by the DEC during its investigation of the Bolton plant. 

French, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, faces fines of $10,000 and four years in prison if convicted.

He has been suspended from his position as Chief Operator and Superintendent of the wastewater treatment plant without pay, Supervisor Conover said.

Conover said the plant is now running under the supervision of a licensed operator from Lake George Village’s wastewater treatment plant.

Given its resources, the Town of Bolton is doing its best to improve the operations of the plant; it’s been pro-active,” said Navitsky. 

Wherever the effluent released through the bypass valve may have settled, Bolton was not cited for discharging pollutants into Lake George.

We have received no data, no reports, to suggest that the problems at the plant created problems for Lake George,” said Conover.

According to District Attorney Soares, the actions for which French was arrested took place in April and May, 2017. 

French told investigators, “The phosphate levels in the effluent were always a problem…. (and) in monitoring well Number Three, nitrates were a problem.”

Monitoring wells are installed to enable operators to sample and assess discharges from the treatment plant.  Interestingly, Number Three was the only one of five monitoring wells “that received ground water discharged from sand beds; the other wells were not collecting groundwater,” said Chris Navitsky.

As a consequence, Navitsky said, the Town of Bolton lacked crucial information about how well or how poorly the plant was functioning.

We knew there was a possibility that the plant was not in compliance with state limits on the discharge of pollutants,” said Navitsky.

Three years ago, Navitsky and Dr. Jim Sutherland initiated a two-year long, “watershed-wide assessment” for The Fund for Lake George that examined not only the plant itself, but the streams, seeps, septic systems and groundwater infiltrations that may have been among the vectors carrying pollutants to Dula Pond and Mohican Point.

At one private beach, “high concentrations of nutrients were causing water quality issues near shore and rendering the area un-usable,” said Navitsky.

The increased algae growth in that near-shore area was an indication that nutrients were affecting water quality, so of course we felt we had to look at the wastewater treatment plant,” said Navitsky.

At the same time, Kathleen Suozzo also undertook an evaluation of the plant and submitted it to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Supervisor Conover was informed of the possibility that the plant might be out of compliance with state regulations. He alerted the DEC, and the DEC launched the investigation that resulted in the arrest of Thomas French on April 17.

According to Navitsky, “the two studies overlapped in many areas and included many of the same recommendations.” Among them: discontinuing the use of some sand beds and utilizing others.

Conover said that major renovations at the plant will begin as soon as the DEC approves additional recommendations, the plans and engineering designs.

According to Conover, Bolton has established “a Sewer Plant Project Improvement Account” to fund upgrades at the plant, including one that will turn two sandbeds into “wood chip bioreactors” -  trenches filled with woodchips.

Woodchips, commonly used by midwestern farmers to clarify agricultural runoff, can extract as much as 60% of the nitrogen remaining in the wastewater already treated by a wastewater treatment plant, officials said. 

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