By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Marlborough – Both sides in an ongoing dispute between the city and the contractor WeCare Environmental LLC have claimed victory after a federal court ruled the city must allow the contractor to reopen a composting facility located near the Easterly Wastewater Treatment Plant.
WeCare has four years left on a 20-year contract to process the city's residential trash and sewage sludge, although it does not cover waste from the Marlborough Public Schools. The city filed a lawsuit against the contractor in 2013 claiming WeCare violated environmental laws and allowed putrid odors to drift into a nearby neighborhood.
The most recent problem started the night of July 20 when two pumps that move that water through the system at the WeCare facility had stopped working. Although the pumps are monitored by city officials, WeCare was not notified of the malfunction until an alarm was triggered two days later, according to Doug Pizzi, a spokesman for the firm.
After the pumps were restarted, city officials visually inspected a sample of effluent (the wastewater that flows out of a treatment plant) that ran from the WeCare composting facility back to the Easterly Plant for final treatment.
The effluent is used in part to remove composting operation odors from its air emissions and then sent back to the Easterly Plant for final treatment. Leachate (water that has percolated through a solid) from a city-owned sewage sludge landfill located behind the WeCare facility also runs into the same pipe system so it, too, can be treated by the Easterly Plant.
The water sample appeared cloudy, Pizzi said, because the two pumps that move that water through the system had malfunctioned, which in turn caused sediment to build up in the pipes.
Because the plant is currently undergoing a $45 million upgrade, city officials were concerned that the “harmful effluent emanating from its facility” would damage the plant equipment so they ordered the pumps shut down again.
At the time the city also claimed that “unpleasant odors” were being emitted from the plant.
“Once the city shut the pumps down and locked them, WeCare attempted to reduce the water flow in the system to keep effluent from overwhelming the system and spilling on the ground.? WeCare told the city that it would temporarily reduce the water volume it uses to account for the city's conduct and to avert an overflow,” Pizzi said. “The city then claimed that the flow reduction violated WeCare's operating permit and ordered WeCare's entire operation to shut down.”
During the nearly 11 days the plant was shut down, city trash was handled by the company Allied Republic.
On July 28, WeCare filed a counter suit and asked a federal court to seek a temporary restraining order and injunction against the city, claiming that the city violated the contract.
After the two sides were unable to come to terms through mediation, the matter went before U.S.? District Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV, who issued a preliminary injunction ordering the plant reopen Aug. 11.
“Specifically, the court finds that WeCare is likely to suffer irreparable loss if preliminary relief is not granted, that such injury outweighs any harm that such relief will inflict on plaintiff, and that the public interest will not be adversely affected by such relief,” Saylor ruled.
In the ruling, Saylor noted 23 conditions the two sides were to follow, to ensure the plant would reopen and that certain processes would take place going forth. Those conditions included directives related to ensuring that routine maintenance procedures were undertaken, and that WeCare would block and seal the floor drains in the compost building associated with piping connections to the blower gallery.
The conditions also state that the two parties “shall attempt to work together in good faith to address any such issues in a prompt and cooperative manner.”
WeCare was directed to provide documentation of all off-site removal and disposal of wastewater, including disposal site and billing information to the city every two weeks. The company was also directed to allow the city, “upon reasonable request” to inspect the facility, by direct observation and video camera.
In a press release issued by City Solicitor Donald Rider's office, city officials were “pleased” with the court's ruling and “the many conditions and restrictions the court has imposed” on WeCare. For quite some time, the city has had ample reason to believe that WeCare has not been honoring its contract with the city for operating the composting facility on Boston Post Road East (Route 20),” the release stated. “The city's position is simply to allow WeCare to run its business while ensuring they live up to their end of the bargain by fully complying with all local, state and federal laws and environmental regulations.
WeCare, for its part, Pizzi said, is committed to working with the city and hopes to resolve its differences in mediation rather than a trial, which is anticipated to be approximately two years away.