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Sewage discharge into the Rio Grande ends 4 months after initial pipeline break

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5:03 p.m. Jan. 12: This story has been updated with information from Wednesday’s Public Service board meeting.

No more toilet jokes: the pipes are fixed and Westside El Paso’s waste is flowing to a water treatment plant instead of into the Rio Grande riverbed — but some serious cleanup remains.

As of Tuesday, the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility is fully operational, cleaning the average 10 million gallons of water produced daily from toilets, drains and showers from 17,500 homes, said Gilbert Trejo, El Paso Water chief operations officer.

“We are in the stage that we are no longer discharging to the river,” Trejo said. “But we remain in the testing and commissioning phase, just to make sure that the pipeline and the treatment plant are operating as they should.”

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Gilbert Trejo, El Paso Water chief operations officer, looks over the aeration basins filled with the Westside’s wastewater at the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility, which became fully operational Tuesday. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Water diverted more than 1.1 billion gallons of sewage into the Rio Grande for four months following the catastrophic failure of dual steel mains in August. The utility said the river was the only body of water that could contain the spill to keep wastewater from backing up into streets and homes.

The utility completed a replacement fiberglass pipeline in December, to replace 1.5 miles of the corroded steel mains. That repair cost $13.3 million.

Cleanup efforts will start next week, Trejo said, which will include using a private contractor to clean utility buildings that came into contact with the sewage, such as the wastewater lift station.

Additional details of further cleanup of the riverbed are expected at Wednesday’s Public Service Board meeting. Those efforts will also require work such as soil testing, and will proceed after coordinating with state and federal officials, Trejo said.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is investigating the spill. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also asking questions but declined to say whether it is opening its own investigation.

Wastewater from Westside homes and businesses goes through the second filtration stage at the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility Tuesday. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

Emergency costs relating to the sewage spilled have totaled $3.2 million, El Paso Water officials said during Wednesday’s Public Service Board meeting. The PSB oversees the utility.

The bulk went to contractors and vendors to pay for overtime and weekend costs for construction, on-site manufacturing and faster delivery, said Felipe Lopez, chief operations officer for distribution and collection. About $71,000 was billed as internal charges for the utility.

Work continues on replacing the remaining 3.5 miles of the 25-year old wastewater pipeline, Trejo said. The PSB approved $27 million in December to replace the next mile of pipeline. The final two miles are still in the construction design phase.

Trejo said the utility’s “parallel focus” is watching for strain on the treatment plant systems and in the remaining pipelines, while working on the cleanup.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done to make things right,” he said.

Cover photo: Large aeration basins hold wastewater at the John T. Hickerson Water Reclamation Facility Tuesday. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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