The Foaming Sewer Mystery


This is another installment in our series of posts about illegal dumping cases. Need a backgrounder on our illegal dumping program? We’ve got a blog post about that!

Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys can tell you that sometimes the answer to your mystery is in plain sight. That was the case with a recent illegal dumping mystery. 

While responding to an unrelated complaint, our illegal dumping team happened upon a storm sewer inlet that had some suspicious white powder and appeared to have been used for illegal dumping. We opened the storm sewer drain to find a white, foamy liquid. 

Sewer has dusty white powder leading to it from the gutter
Our team observed a suspicious white powder on and around a storm drain.
Foamy white liquid is visible inside a sewer
After opening the storm sewer, our team saw a foamy, white liquid.

A field pH analysis of the material revealed a pH greater than 10. That’s a red flag to us because anything over 9.0 is prohibited from discharge to a storm sewer or surface water. Most of the time, this means we need to do some detective work to find out what the substance is and who is responsible for the dumping. But in this case, our team simply needed to turn around.

In a property right next to the storm sewer inlet, our team observed a flooring contractor working outside. They spotted mortar mixing tools, a bucket of wastewater, and a tile cutting saw in the front yard. After interviewing him, the team determined his employee had illegally disposed of tool washing and mortar mixing wastewater in the inlet. 

Flooring supplies sit on a drop cloth outside
Our team saw flooring materials outside in the property next to the storm sewer.

Considering the amount of material released and the distance from a natural waterbody, the team decided they did not need to call in City of Madison Engineering for a more extensive removal and cleanup of the material. The operator was cited for a water pollution violation, which comes with a fine of $313. Next time, the operator will put the wastewater down an interior drain, so it’ll be treated at the sewage plant. 

Reporting Concerns or Possible Violations

You can report any possible violations in Dane County to us.

Anyone can report a concern or possible violation. We have the authority to address threats to surface water quality in Madison and Dane County. We’ll ask for some basic details about what happened, like a description of what you saw and when.

Reporting possible violations is easy, either by online form or by phone.

To report a concern in Dane County, fill out an online report or call (608) 266-4821.

This content is free for use with credit to Public Health Madison & Dane County .

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