The Block Island Times

Sewer system inspection reveals heavy buildup

Meeting ends in a personnel disagreement
By Stephanie Turaj | Feb 18, 2013
Photo by: Kari Curtis

A February 11 Sewer and Water Commission meeting that spanned four hours began with a report on a video inspection of the sewer collection line, led to a merry-go-round discussion about upgrades and ended in a contentious discussion about the sewer clerk’s job performance.

Chris Blane, probationary sewer superintendent, reported the results of a four-day video inspection and cleaning of the sewer collection system. Inland Waters Inc., the company awarded the bid for the work, started work January 28, and inspected and cleaned 7,927 feet of sewer line, including all critical areas of concern resulting from Hurricane Sandy.

“We found breaks in the sewer line on Ocean Avenue,” said Blane. “substantial buildup of what they refer to as F.O.G. — fat, oil, and grease — on Ocean Avenue, as well as debris.”

This past December 30, a sewer leak that occurred on Ocean Avenue, just west of the Block Island Grocery, was due to debris blockage in the collection system.

The inspection also revealed grease buildup in the Water Street lines. Blane said that a tool called a “chain cutter” has been ordered to cut through the grease in these lines.

“We were able to clean and inspect more line than first planned — Weldon’s Way to Chapel Street was cleaned and inspected,” Blane wrote in his monthly report to the Sewer Commission.

Several lines closer to Old Harbor, such as those by the Interstate Navigation parking lot and by Ballard’s restaurant, had a lot of debris and sand, which has now been cleaned out.

Blane also said that significant F.O.G. build-up was found in “lateral lines” — customers’ connection lines to the main sewer line. “Most customers would have no way of knowing how much buildup is in the laterals,” he wrote in his report.

Sewer Commission Chair Pete McNerney suggested that this cleaning/inspection happen regularly, perhaps annually. This is the first time a cleaning has been done since 2011, and a cleaning/inspection since 2006. Blane also proposed that, if it were to happen regularly, local businesses could choose to pay for it, since the cleaning could help prevent grease blockage and sewer spills.

At the end of the meeting, Sven Risom, representing the Committee for the Great Salt Pond, provided an update of the committee’s work to protect the pond from pollution, including management to prevent sewer spills. He also commended Blane’s job performance.

“For the first time in many years, we’re hearing about proactive management from the superintendent,” he said. “He’s really going out and trying to get ahead of the curve. It amazes me, it shocks me, that video monitoring hasn’t been done up until recently.”

Personnel clash

At the end of the meeting, some tension developed between Blane and  the Sewer and Water District Clerk, Janet Ziegler.

On the agenda was the job performance of Ziegler, sewer and water district clerk. Under state Open Meetings Law, personnel discussions may be held in closed session at the behest of the personnel.

After being asked, Ziegler requested the discussion be held in open session.

A brief silence followed her answer, which was broken by McNerney.

“The superintendent came to me, roughly two weeks ago and felt that the situation between him and the clerk had not progressed,” he said. “That the situation was unworkable from his standpoint, and the communication wasn’t there, that the clerk wasn’t really reporting to him.”

The clerk reports directly to both the sewer and water superintendents. Both positions have seen a changeover in the past six months. Blane replaced Ray Boucher in October, and John Breunig replaced Dave Simmons in December.

In addition, before last June, the clerk reported to the commissions directly, not the superintendents. Since the commissioners were not present to supervise her from day-to-day, they voted on June 11, 2012, to have her report to the superintendents instead.

For the next hour of the meeting, a back and forth ensued. Both sides — Ziegler and Blane — had comments to make about their work environment.

“I feel a little bit ambushed because I asked twice why I was on the agenda and I was just told, ‘job performance,’” Ziegler said. “I don’t know what all the complaints are.”

Blane raised many concerns about Ziegler’s job performance, noting that he didn’t anticipate discussing them in open session. Ziegler defended her work performance.

She said that sometimes, she is asked to look for files and information that are located in places where they should not have been placed.

Blane claimed that many of his requests were met with resistance. “Without help in that office, that job is a nightmare,” he said.

“If this situation is not resolved, then I find it inconceivable that I would take on this position full-time,” he said. He is currently on his fifth month of a six-month “probationary” period.

The discussion progressed, even touching upon how the two act during lunch breaks.

At the end, Fred Leeder made a comment from the audience. “I spent a lot of time sitting through human resources personnel classes,” he said. “All these points you raised are great: respect, co-operation ... they all go both ways.”

The ultimate decision was for a private mediation to be held on Wednesday, February 13. Commissioner Brad Marthens and alternate Allan MacKay agreed to speak with Ziegler and Blane in hopes of reaching compromise.

The commission then went into closed session to discuss Blane’s job performance. At a previous meeting, the commission had voted to review Blane during his probationary superintendent period.

Other upgrades, maintenance and repairs

Much of the meeting — some three hours in total — revolved around maintenance, capital improvements and upgrades.

Town engineer Jim Geremia took part in these discussions. He recommended many upgrades, including the sewer plant’s SCADA system, a monitoring and alert system. The Sewer Commission awarded some of this work to bidder Electrical Installations for $312,000. The commission did not vote to perform all the proposed work at this time.

One issue took up about an hour of discussion. Last year, the commission purchased a power generator for emergency backup. The generator was purchased used, at a less expensive price, and also had a higher power capacity than the sewer plant actually needed; a smaller generator might be better.

After a circular conversation between Blane, Geremia and McNerney, each arguing their own opinion on the matter, commissioners voted to return the current back-up generator for one with a smaller energy output, contingent upon a test to determine the power  requirements of the plant.

Geremia reported in a memo to the Sewer Commission that sewer insurance claims from Hurricane Sandy totaled $46,779.68.

The commission discussed smoke testing the sewer collection lines, which would send a non-toxic fog through the system to reveal illegal or improperly hooked up connections to the line. No decisions were made about when to perform this.

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