LONGMONT — The accidental release of a small amount of chlorine by the city’s wastewater treatment plant into the St. Vrain River is made all the more irritating to Longmont officials because they’ve been trying for years to stop using the toxic gas to clean their water.
In 2001, the city decided to stop using chlorine to disinfect its treated sewage before releasing it into the river, and instead use ultraviolet light to zap bacteria.
The UV system doesn’t require chemicals of any kind and is widely accepted worldwide.
So in 2002 the city bought and installed a $250,000 system, hoping to eliminate the use of chlorine and the contamination risks accompanying it.
There’s only one problem: The UV system doesn’t work, hasn’t worked and probably will never work. And replacing it with a new one could cost up to $650,000.
City engineers can’t say exactly why the system doesn’t work in Longmont — it’s been installed successfully all over the world — and the Longmont City Council has been meeting with its lawyers to discuss options, which could include a lawsuit or a settlement.
Because the city won’t talk publicly about how it plans to proceed, the Daily Times-Call used the state’s open records laws to request information about the selection, installation and testing of the failed Wedeco UV technologies TAK55 disinfection system.
Thousands of pages of documents released by the city show multiple attempts by the vendor, Wedeco, to figure out why the system is not working. Those documents also show an increasing level of frustration on the part of water quality director Cal Youngberg and other city officials as consultant after expert after troubleshooter provided by Wedeco can’t make the system work properly.
At one point, the company made the system work by adding extra ultraviolet bulbs and cranking up the amount of energy running through them. That failed to satisfy the city because Longmont bought this particular system because it cost less to run than a competing system, made by a company called Trojan. Using more bulbs and electricity meant the Wedeco system was no longer cheaper to use, documents show.
Wedeco quoted the city a price of $239,950 for the original UV system, which was installed in the summer of 2002. The system was selected as part of an expansion of the treatment plant to make it big enough to serve the city’s final projected population of about 101,000 residents.
An e-mail sent from Wedeco’s municipal products sales director, Ludwig Dinkloh, on Aug. 8, 2002, offers one of the first indications the company knew there was a problem with the system. After workers installed the system, they found it failed to properly kill bacteria in the water during a test.
“In any case, please be ensured that Wedeco wants to get to the bottom of this performance test failure and come up with an adequate solution as soon as possible,” Dinkloh said in the e-mail to Youngberg and other city officials.
In an effort to understand what was failing, Wedeco had the city ship it untreated water samples from the plant the next week.
It also sent its own engineers, its top field troubleshooters and top company executives to Longmont in the following months.
By fall of 2002, city workers were growing frustrated with Wedeco’s attempts to fix the problems.
“Sounds like they think they have satisfied us, but now I have even more questions,” said sewage treatment plant superintendent John Anderson in an e-mail to Youngberg and other officials dated Sept. 12, 2002
The next month, Youngberg started recommending the city seek other options.
“I still believe they are trying to blow enough smoke to cover up the initial design problems with the system,” he wrote in an Oct. 17, 2002, e-mail to Anderson and other colleagues. “If this system can’t work reliably without constant operator intervention and continuous worry about its performance, then we’ll definitely consider switching to hypochlorite (a disinfecting chemical). Or maybe Trojan would like to bring in a pilot unit and run side-by-side comparison tests with the Wedeco system? Think that would get Wedeco’s attention?”
A month later, city officials began drafting a letter to Wedeco airing their complaints and seeking a solution.
By July 2003, the company agreed to install additional treatment bulbs. But in the summer of 2004, workers still were unable to make the system work as advertised.
The system beams light into wastewater as it runs through a shallow trough. The light is supposed to deactivate bacteria, including fecal coliform. But after passing through the system, bacteria remained active.
The company alternately said the water was too murky for the light to penetrate, that the bulbs were dirty or that testing was flawed.
City officials pointed out that Wedeco promised the system would work under the exact conditions under which it was installed.
And a six-week test of the competing Trojan system in summer 2003 went swimmingly.
By that time, the Longmont City Council had been officially notified of the problems with the system and told that replacing it could cost $650,000. Some of that could be offset if the city can return the failed Wedeco system to the manufacturer and get at least a partial refund.
Part of the reason the city is reluctant to keep working with the Wedeco system is that it will cost an additional $345,000 in maintenance and electricity over what was originally budgeted.
This week, Youngberg and city water/wastewater director Dale Rademacher declined to comment. But in a letter sent to Wedeco’s president on July 1, 2003, Youngberg’s feelings are clear.
“On most of the occasions when we informed you of problems, months have gone by without any meaningful action on your part. At this point, our confidence in your product and your company is such that we would encourage you to consider taking the system back and returning the funds so that we can pursue other disinfection alternatives,” Youngberg wrote. “All of us have spent far too much time and money on this problem and we question whether additional efforts are worthwhile.”
Calls to Wedeco’s North Carolina headquarters went unanswered Friday, as did calls to the the company’s president, John Marrino. A Vermont cell phone number Dinkloh gave to the city was answered by a woman who said she had no idea who he was.
Because the city is apparently in settlement talks with Wedeco, officials refused to release 25 of the most of the recent letters, faxes and e-mails between them.
Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at email@example.com.