In October of 2012, storm surges caused by Hurricane Sandy rose from the waters of Newark Bay and engulfed the 152-acre Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s wastewater treatment facility.
Situated at water’s edge in an industrial area on Newark Bay, the sewage treatment plant lies just across the water from Jersey City and within sight of the New York skyline. Built in 1902, the facility was enlarged in 1924 and again in 1980, when secondary treatment capability was added. Today, it has an annual budget of $150 million, an employee base of approximately 600, and serves an estimated two million residents of New York and New Jersey.
The plant processes 25 percent of New Jersey’s waste and 15 percent of New York City’s. More than 1.4 million customers are on gravity feed, connected to PVSC via pipeline. Forty-eight communities feed into the system. The plant also processes waste that is delivered by truck, with some 200-300 trucks per day delivering to the facility. It is the fifth largest wastewater treatment facility in the nation.
With Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Eastern United States, state officials and emergency managers in facilities up and down the coast began to take protective action.
“We were tasked with preparing for Sandy,” said Chris O’Shea, director of security and safety for PVSC. “But if you gave me a year, we couldn’t have prepared for it.”
The plant readied itself for Sandy as it had prepared for Irene and previous storms.
Plant workers installed covers to protect switchgears and other critical systems. PVSC prepared to deactivate some functions and evacuate the plant if flood waters infiltrated. Motor vehicles were moved to higher ground within the footprint of the plant
But flood waters rose swiftly, preventing facility workers from performing emergency actions such as de-energizing the system, which could have reduced damage and recovery times.
With Newark Bay on the east side of the plant, officials conducted a phased shutdown of operations on that side.
“As water began to encroach on the facility, we shut down 33 motor control centers throughout the plant.”
The flood waters followed the path of least resistance.
“It actually hit us from the west and then enveloped us,” O’Shea said.
“There was a 12-foot surge of water that enveloped us like a bathtub. It filled up all our infrastructure.”
Access roads were flooded; sewage treatment tanks were under water. Clarifying tanks, located in a basin with a height of 13 feet above grade, were overtopped by the surge.
Underground tunnels housing miles of critical infrastructure filled with contaminated salt water.
In the midst of the emergency, PVSC’s energy supplier, PSE&G, cut power to the facility, the largest energy consumer in New Jersey.
“We also lost power to all of the sump pump stations,” O’Shea noted. “PSE&G didn’t restore power until Thursday (Nov. 1, 2012).”
“There was no emergency power to keep sump pumps in action. There were no phones, no lights, no computers, and no internet. The Essex County Sheriff’s Dept. couldn’t raise us by phone so they sent a team here.”
The plant was inoperable. It would remain that way for 48 hours.
O’Shea said, “We actually shut our gates in order to prevent unprocessed waste from leaving the facility.”
But, faced with the threat of having millions of gallons of raw sewage back up into thousands of homes and commercial buildings in New York and New Jersey or having it discharge into the bay, the DEP ordered PVSC to open the gates and allow the untreated sewage to pass into the bay and on into New York Harbor.
Reacting to the emergency, NJ Governor Chris Christie contacted President Barack Obama, who directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Philadelphia District, to remove the water from the facility.
“By Presidential decree, we became the Army Corps of Engineers No. 1 priority worldwide,” O’Shea said.
Getting the plant back on line was critical to preventing what Dan Sirkis, Geo Environmental Chief for USACE Philadelphia, called “a brewing environmental catastrophe.”
Between October 29 and November 3, almost 840 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Newark Bay. It was the largest spill ever recorded of any such facility in the New York and New Jersey region.
On November 3, workers succeeded in restoring primary wastewater treatment and disinfection capabilities.
But all was not back to normal.
Between Nov. 3 and November 16, when the facility’s secondary treatment operations came back on line, an estimated 3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage had been discharged.
It would be two weeks before the facility was able to restore the primary and secondary treatment capabilities critical to environmentally sound disposal.
The plant was not able to return to routine capacity until 45 days after the storm.
Many more months would pass before the plant was considered to be fully functional.
As critical as it was to bring the plant back on-line, it was abundantly clear to PVSC officials, the state and to the federal government that a catastrophe of this magnitude could never be allowed to happen again.
Mitigation – taking steps to protect the plant from a similar future disaster – was the second greatest priority.
In the aftermath of the storm, the massive task of assessing the damage, projecting the cost of repairs and exploring what funding resources were available to repair, rebuild and mitigate the facility began.
“The complex infrastructure repair projects that are undertaken after a disaster require committed partners to manage all phases of the project - from the initial damage assessment, to repair and mitigation of the damaged facilities and structures,” said Mary Goepfert, spokesman for the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management. “Being able to support the request for FEMA Public Assistance funding is one the most important steps in the process. NJOEM has been providing ongoing technical assistance to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) regarding their application for funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency for facilities recovery from Hurricane Sandy. NJOEM technical experts aided with the project formulation, funding application, FEMA review of the funding request and extensive work related to mitigation measures intended to reduce risk from future storms.”
Starting in March of 2013, plant officials and consultants met weekly with Federal Emergency Management Agency engineers and mitigation specialists, representatives from the state and other federal agencies to map out a plan for the repair and mitigation of the facility. “DEP was here. ACE was here. FEMA was embedded here,” said O’Shea, a retired Commanding Officer for the NJ State Police. “The transparency, the questions, the ability to pool all those resources…it was an opportunity for all these agencies to come together and come up with a fix from the beginning. I can say without hesitation, this worked well.”
The mitigation plan for the facility includes approximately 50 projects eligible for FEMA reimbursement and is expected to take 5 to 7 years to complete. “This has clearly been a complex and challenging project for all involved,” said FEMA NJ-SRO Director John Covell. “It required a team effort by commission officials, and a number of state and federal agencies to insure that the repair and mitigation plan was developed in a way that is environmentally sound and economically prudent. We believe this project will stand as a model for best practices in mitigation for many years to come.”
As the design phase of the project gets under way, temporary mitigation measures for the facility are being taken or are already in place.
To date, the plant has invested approximately $10 million of its own funds in repair and mitigation procedures, with their estimated total investment projected at $25 million.
FEMA has written 46 projects for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission. Forty-two of the forty-six have been obligated, for a project total of $72,017,026.81 and an obligated amount of $64,815,324.14.
The remaining four projects are in review/pending award and represent a project total of $291,521,375.47 that includes major mitigation initiatives to prevent a recurrence in any future similar events.
The Environmental Assessment (EA) comment period for the projects ended July 17, 2014 and obligation of remaining project funds is anticipated by late summer.
The Passaic Valley project – the largest of its kind in the state – will endure as a model of effective mitigation planning, said O’Shea, a member of the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security Water Sector Security Working Group.
As the largest sewerage treatment facility in the state, similar facilities in New Jersey are paying close attention to the mitigation measures PVSC is taking to prevent another storm from creating another disaster at PVSC. “They certainly look to us for Best Practices,” O’Shea said.
Workers are presently elevating high voltage cabling on poles that extend 27 feet into the air. Plant security and control systems are also being elevated. ‘Muscle walls”’ (flood barriers) have been installed around critical buildings. Emergency gates have been built at the plant’s head end and numerous other measures are being taken to protect the plant until a permanent flood wall is constructed.
Should there be another storm before those permanent fixes are accomplished, O’Shea said, “No-one is going to accept (the excuse) that we were waiting for the project to begin.
“Nothing could have prepared us for a storm like Sandy,” he continued. “What the system was never built to handle was 170 miles of the state being destroyed. We weren’t built to have a system in place that could cover us for an event like Sandy. We are dealing with a scope of disaster that is enormous. Two years out, this is enormous. Once was enough, that’s for sure.”