Two years after a sewer line rupture spilled nearly 100 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, the state Department of Natural Resources has determined the city of Eau Claire will face no further action related to that incident as long as it complies with added waterway protections.

The DNR launched an investigation in September 2016 into the broken line, and one month later the agency cited the city with three violations of state pollutant discharge regulations related to the incident and for its failure to detect the rupture more quickly. 

But after follow-up investigation of the matter, the city learned it would not face additional penalties from the DNR, according to a letter dated July 3 the agency issued to the city.

DNR officials disagree with the city’s assertion that the rupture did not violate its pollution discharge regulations, the letter states. 

“However, with the understanding the city will be completing the actions proposed in the letter (regarding pollution discharge permit rules) ... the department will take no further action on the violations alleged (related to the sewer line rupture),” the letter said. 

City attorney Stephen Nick said the city does not believe it is responsible for the sewer line rupture, given that an investigation shows the break was caused by an anchor of a construction barge owned by Lunda Construction Co. of Black River Falls. The Market & Johnson construction company of Eau Claire contracted with Lunda, not the city. 

However, Nick said he is pleased the issue appears to be resolved and that “the DNR has decided to take no further action against the city.”

According to a report by the Short Elliott Hendrickson engineering firm of Chippewa Falls, the barge broke loose from its moorings near the Haymarket Landing building during heavy rain on Sept. 7, 2015, and its anchor damaged the nearby sewer line as it dragged along the bottom of the Eau Claire River. 

In accordance with DNR stipulations, the city is taking a number of steps to better detect a similar rupture if one were to happen in the future, Nick said. Chief among them is an electronic relay that will be installed at a monitoring site for the sewer line that ruptured. 

“That will help us know if a rupture occurs again,” Nick said, noting such a rupture had not happened that he is aware of previously.   

The city also is enhancing storm water prevention efforts at various locations to reduce runoff into the rivers, Nick said.

On July 27, 2016, city officials discovered a broken sewer line near the merger of the rivers at the site of the Haymarket Landing building under construction at that time. About 300,000 gallons of untreated sewage daily was leaking into those rivers because of the break, officials said.

When the ruptured line was discovered, city workers set up a bypass system to avoid more sewage leaking into the rivers. Subsequent investigation revealed the sewer line was broken by the construction barge. 

However, the city didn’t discover the rupture until more than 10 months later. After the pipes were broken, the city utilities department noticed a daily decreased flow in the sewage system, but workers thought the variance was because of new equipment the city installed to more accurately monitor wastewater flow. The city’s average daily wastewater flow is about 5.1 million gallons.

In December 2017 the city accepted a $624,996 payment to cover costs related to last December’s replacement of the damaged sewer siphon near the merger of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers in downtown Eau Claire. 

The settlement also addressed the costs of the city’s immediate response to the sewer line break and setup of a temporary bypass system. The payment covered the entire cost of the city expenses related to the broken sewer line, minus a $25,000 deductible. 

The payment was made by the Wisconsin Local Government Property Insurance Fund, the city’s property insurance provider at the time of the sewer line rupture. 

The DNR apparently will not seek compensation from Lunda Construction Co., as James Dick, DNR communications director, said the agency “does not have any regulatory authority” to do so. 

Nick said the city does not have the power to seek action against Lunda given that the city did not contract with the company “so we don’t have authority over them.”  

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