It’s too late to do anything about the broken sewer main that led to 1.6 million gallons of wastewater entering the Mispillion River last month. But Kent County is taking steps to make sure that it never happens again, with a proposal for a bypass system that could cost as much as $7.5 million.


It’s too late to do anything about the broken sewer main that led to 1.6 million gallons of wastewater entering the Mispillion River last month. But Kent County is taking steps to make sure that it never happens again, with a proposal for a bypass system that could cost as much as $7.5 million.

“Now that it’s happened once, I don’t think we’ll be looked on favorably if we have to do it again,” Eric Buckson, Milford’s representative on the Kent County Levy Court, said. “We have to be ready.”

A sudden break in a pipe under Route 1 on Dec. 1 forced the county’s public works department to find somewhere else to pump Milford’s wastewater, and the only available option, they said, was the Mispillion River.

Over 1.6 million gallons of sewage went into the Mispillion before the damage was fixed, and it could have been a lot worse; Perdue and Sea Watch, two of the biggest water users in Milford, voluntarily shut down operations rather than pump more waste into the river.

The problem isn’t that the pipe broke. In a large enough system, there will be occasional breakdowns; the key is to be ready for them when they happen. The next time there’s a break in the Milford system, Buckson said, there needs to be somewhere to send backed-up sewage other than the Mispillion River.

The solution: A completely new backup main that would let service continue as usual even if the regular pipe is out of commission.

The catch: It’ll cost. Kent County has other backup mains, in areas including Frederica and downtown Dover, but there are less than 10 in the entire system, because the expense is that high.

“In many places, it’s simply not cost-effective,” Kent County Director of Public Works Hans Medlarz said.

Building the line entirely with city and county funds would cost up to $7.5 million, he said. That would require not only a “substantial” contribution from the city, but also a general rate hike for all Kent County sewer customers. That’s not an attractive prospect to the city or the county.

Fortunately, it’s not the only way.

“We’re hoping that the project will be partially funded with money from the federal stimulus program,” Buckson said.

The idea is to tie the county project into Harrington’s proposed expansion of its sewer system, which would make it eligible for money from the impending federal economic stimulus package.

“Harrington coming in would cut the cost of the project in half from the get-go,” Medlarz said.

Harrington has long debated tying its sewage system into Kent County’s, and currently seems to be ready to take that step. If they do decide to go through with the work, county officials said, the city is ready to move within four to six months. That counts as a “shovel-ready” project to the federal government, which is a key part of winning stimulus funding.

“It would be a real boon for everyone involved,” Buckson said.

Harrington city officials did not return calls for comment.

Medlarz said that whether or not the bypass goes forward, his department is looking at doing large-scale preventative maintenance on the sewer lines in Milford. 

“We need to make sure that the old line is fully functional,” he said.

It will take that kind of work to be sure that there aren’t any more breaks like the one from December waiting to happen somewhere else.

“That wasn’t a high-risk area,” he said. “If there was going to be a break, we’d expect it higher up the line.”

It turned out that here was a slab of concrete resting directly on the pipe, putting constant pressure on it until the metal eventually broke. A misaligned air valve just made things worse.

That wasn’t he first time that the weight of a chunk of concrete caused a sewer break – the last time it happened in Kent was just three years ago, in Dover. But a situation like that is practically impossible to detect ahead of time without actually digging up the road to take a look.

“That’s not something you can just go down and check to be sure,” Medlarz said. “It’s a big project.”

The Levy Court gave Public Works permission to officially investigate bypass options Tuesday night, making Building a bypass is now the county’s first choice, Medlarz said, but it’s by no means a done deal. County engineers know what they want to do, and – generally – where it would go, but they’re depending on Harrington’s participation to make the cost reasonable.

Under normal circumstances, it could take three years or more to finish this kind of work, but that timetable could step up depending on how negotiations work out with the city of Harrington, county officials said. Exactly how much is still to be determined.