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Mystery chemical damages wastewater treatment facility

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Mystery chemical damages wastewater treatment facility
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Mystery chemicals are brewing up trouble at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility and officials want to know who dumped what into the sewer. Tamara Lindstrom tells us about the damage done at the plant and why it's important to find out just what went into the water.

ITHACA, N.Y. -- It's a complicated system. Every day, the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility cleans an average of 13 million gallons of sewage before sending it back to Cayuga Lake. But last week, something went wrong.

"I looked out there and it didn't look right," said Dan Ramer, Chief Operator of the plant. "Even before the sun was up, it didn't look right."

Suds on the surface showed a problem with the second phase of treatment.

"Which is thousands of pounds of biomass that acts as a biological filter," Ramer said. "It's an ecosystem. It has producers and grazers. And in our case, the grazers got impaired. They are the higher life forms, protozoans and whatnot that eat the bacteria. They are the ones that got shut off and killed."

A hazmat team came to investigate, but the results were murky, leaving officials wondering what was dumped.

"We saw some sudsy results prior to the biological system, so we were thinking a detergent of some kind or something like that," Ramer said. "But when biological systems get sick, they can create their own sudsy materials as the cells die off."

While the plant is already working to undo the damage done by the mystery chemical, Ramer says it's important to find out what exactly it was, so it doesn't damage the system again.

"It will help us identify who might have done it, which would be nice. But the bigger thing is it will help us prepare for future problems where we would know exactly what to look for, and maybe be able to make some changes within the plant to ameliorate the effects."

Fortunately, freezing water kept the danger to swimmers at bay. Ramer says the amount of partially treated water that made it to the lake isn't enough to hurt the ecosystem this time.

"Certainly, this did not come from somebody's accidental dumping of a gallon or two of something from underneath their sink," Ramer said. "This is far more significant than that."

But he's hoping whoever dumped the chemicals, knowingly or not, will come forward.

Officials believe the substance was dumped sometime on Saturday or Sunday, November 24th or 25th in Ithaca or Dryden.

Anyone with information should call the treatment facility at (607) 273-8381.

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