Power Outage Causes Spillage of Wastewater into Lake Michigan

Published October 15, 2018

More three million gallons of untreated wastewater spilled into Lake Michigan from the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility, a sewage treatment plant in Milwaukee, during a power outage.

The cause of the power outage has yet to be determined. The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), which operates the Jones Island plant, has established a goal of operating on 80 percent renewable energy by 2035, eventually using 100 percent net renewable energy, 80 percent of which the organization expects to generate onsite. Wind and solar energy are intermittent and typically require backup by other power sources.

Offline for Hours

Power to the Jones Island facility, the largest in Wisconsin, was out for nearly three hours, from 1:47 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. on August 18. When the outage occurred, backup gas generators normally used for emergencies were offline for maintenance. The combination of events resulted in wastewater flooding part of the plant and spilling into the lake.

MMSD is powered by renewable energy sources producing electricity onsite and from electricity from utilities. MMSD uses biogas produced from biosolids or waste treated at the facility and from municipal solid waste at nearby landfills, and solar energy. MMSD announced at the Central States Water Association’s 85th annual meeting in 2012 it expected to expand its renewable portfolio into electricity generated from wind turbines.

In recent years, despite MMSD’s stated goal of utilizing renewable energy to power a larger percentage of its operations, its use of renewable energy has actually fallen, due in part to the repeated failure of its onsite biogas powered generating system.

Harbinger of Future Problems

As MMSD relies more on renewable energy sources to power its water treatment facilities, such spills may become more common in the future, says Isaac Orr, a policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.

“Because renewable energy sources are intermittent, and there are no good, large-scale, cost-effective power storage systems for them, relying on renewable sources for 100 or even 80 percent of the power needed to carry out the vital function of treating solid waste and municipal water treatment is likely to be a recipe for disaster,” Orr said. “Twenty-four/seven electric power is a necessity to avoid wastewater spills, and renewable energy sources just can’t be counted on to supply that.”

‘It’s Embarrassing’

Orr, a native of Wisconsin, says Milwaukee should reallocate money to priorities such as energy infrastructure, to prevent such incidents, instead of spending it on unnecessary transportation projects.

“As someone who grew up in Wisconsin, it’s embarrassing Milwaukee can’t seem to handle basic water sanitation services,” said Orr. “The Milwaukee Common Council approved a proposal for a $128 million streetcar running through downtown Milwaukee in 2015, and construction began in 2017. Rather than spending the $128 million on the streetcar lines, they should have devoted the money to improved energy reliability and better sanitation services.”

Mitchell Rolling ([email protected]) is a research assistant at the Center of the American Experiment.