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The recent sewage spill into the Tahquamenon River was caused by a perfect storm of plastic bags, according to interim Village Manager Allison Watkins.

Watkins discussed the breach at the monthly meeting of the Newberry Village Council, which was held via Zoom at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19.

The plastic bags plugged both of the plant’s pumps, which resulted in 130,000 gallons of sewage emptying into the Tahquamenon River.

Alarms were triggered at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 16, summoning the wastewater treatment crew to the scene. They arrived within an hour.

“The pumps themselves worked how they were designed to,” Watkins said. “The clogging happened because plastic bags made their way into the system just as one pump was powering down and the second pump was powering up, clogging both pumps at the same time.”

Wipes, which don’t break down well, were tangled with the plastic bags, Watkins said.

The crew tried to clear the clogs by reversing the pumps, which typically pushes out whatever is in there, Watkins explained.  It didn’t work.

“One of the issues that occurred as well was the pumps were working so hard, they got into a high heat zone, and when they get to the high temperature, they automatically shut down to cool themselves off,” she said.

Both pumps had to be pulled out of the pits to clear the plug. The water had to be pumped out of the pits in order to place the pumps back in place. “Everything that we needed to happen to get this done as quickly as possible and avoid back up of the entire village sewer system worked for us,” said Watkins.

This could have been avoided, Watkins said.

“This was a preventable incident that can be avoided by folks only flushing pee, poo, and toilet paper, and nothing else, Watkins said.

The treatment facility will also take measures to prevent a reoccurrence.

“There are two things that need to happen moving forward to prevent this from happing again. The long term solution is installing rails that come to the top of the pits so we don’t have to clear them in order to get the pumps back down where they need to go.”

Also needed is a mechanism to lift the pumps out of the pits when needed. A digger truck from the Water and Light department was used to retrieve the pumps on May 16. A temporary solution is to order a trash pump and a line so if this happens again, the sewage could be pumped back into the system while the pumps are serviced.

The event on May 16 took six hours and the wastewater treatment plant staff were assisted by the Newberry Fire Department and a pumper truck service Watkins stated that a report was sent to EGLE (formerly DEQ) and according to the contact from EGLE, there will be no fine.

Other items discussed that evening included a discussion on the new maintenance building, an update on the audit and reports from village officers and management.

Other news included a pending arbitration with former village manager Jennifer-James Mesloh is taking place. A mediation team was selected and approved by the board. The team included trustee Jeff Puckett, with Kip Cameron as an alternate, and interim Village Manager Allison Watkins.