LEWES, Del. - The Wastewater Treatment Plant experienced its second malfunction in two weeks on Thursday. Some question whether it is equipped to handle a growing population, but the Lewes BPW says it has not even come close to reaching its full capacity. 

The Lewes Board of Pubic Works says when Tidewater Utilities put its brand new filtration system from Canada online, the company was quick to discover something was wrong. 

"They noticed that the buildup of sludge on the new filters was more rapid than typical," says BPW President Daniel Preston Lee. "They were concerned and with an abundance of caution they decided to shut it down until they knew what to do so they didn't contaminate these filters."

The facility was forced to bypass stages of treatment and discharge partially treated waste water into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control says the bypass lasted two hours. The agency says that prior to the system malfunction, the Lewes WWTP maintained four membrane treatment units.

Lee says the old filters were reaching the end of their life when the malfunction occurred and that replacements had already been budgeted. He says the plant serves 3,500 homes, Beebe Healthcare and other businesses in the city. 

The BPW is working to be transparent with the public. It says the plant can handle 400,000 gallons or water or more each day with only one flow train operating. During the peak summer time it can handle up to 1.5 million gallons, but even then it's nowhere close to reaching full capacity.

Glen Marston remain hopeful that any improvements will be a step in the right direction. "The more holding capacity the better," he says. "I don't think we need to be letting more wastewater out into the canal."

Merr Institute Executive Director Suzanne Thurman is worried about how potential toxins in the canal could impact marine life and shellfish.

"Even on best of days, wastewater that's treated in the more traditional means still excretes certain toxins into the waterways," says Thurman. "That includes pharmaceuticals, antigen inhibitors, caffeine. For species like Shellfish that are filter feeders, they have the highest risk of incorporating those toxins into their systems."

Thurman hopes the city will explore more environmentally friendly wastewater treatment options down the road. 

"They certainly have a good track record of making environmentally sound decisions," says Thurman. 

Lee says Tidewater is working to clean the older sets of filters here until they can be replaced. He says one set is in the process of being ordered and that the other two will be ordered soon. The plant's capacity is expected to increase once each system has been replaced.

"There's plenty of capacity there," says Lee. "If there's any annexation and additional services outside of the community we can take some of those also."

DNREC plans to monitor the plant daily to ensure no more malfunctions occur. The agency says it has been collecting information about operational conditions that caused the recent bypass events at the Lewes WWTP since Dec. 18 It says the incident that occurred is attributable to equipment malfunction, and not related to the volume of flow coming into the plant for treatment.

According to DNREC, Tidewater placed one refurbished unit back online late Friday afternoon. The agency says this unit will offer operational backup for treatment and further mitigate the potential need for additional bypass events.