New woes at Lake Placid: overworked sewage plant

Bus transportation problems, which stranded thousands of people for hours here during the first week of the Winter Olympics, have eased. But now another battle is developing -- unnoticed by both top Olympics officials and tourists. At issue: the growing amount of waste that the Lake Placid sewage treatment center is having to process.

If the rising trend continues -- and it is expected to continue now that some of the transportation problems have been solved -- the small plant may have to turn away waste material before the end of the week, says Paul Gutmann, who is in charge of the treatment center. This is despite the fact that the waste treatment facility was enlarged to cope with additional needs before the Winter Games opened.

Mr. Gutmann says the flow of waste "has been increasing, probably due to the fact that the transportation system was getting a little better."

During one "peak" period Feb. 18, the plant, which was designed to process a maximum of 2.5 million gallons of waste a day, was receiving so much that the rate, if averaged over a whole day, would have reached 2.56 million gallons. But the flow for the day averaged out below the 2.5 million-gallon threshold, and a crisis was averted.

Mr. Gutmann says he would not hesitate to "turn back" some of the increasing number of trucks that have been collecting waste other than that handled by the underground sewage system, if the treatment plant cannot handle the additional material. This, in turn, could cause some environmental problems that top state officials apparently did not foresee.

Meanwhile, state environmental conservation commissioner Robert F. Flacke told reporters over the weekend that ground transportation management "didn't exist" before a three-member management team from the Greyhound Bus Company was hired Feb. 16.

But both officials and Winter Olympics ticketholders agreed that the transportation situation had improved markedly by Feb. 18, and most people forecast that this would continue in the right direction.

"I had never seen the parking lot in Saranac Lake so full," said Michael Rechlin, who waited with his wife for bus transportation to the ski jump site Feb. 18. "But the people just streamed into the buses, and there were practically no waits at all."

New York Gov. Hugh Carey had declared a limited state of emergency in the area as a result of the transportation crisis. National Guardsmen and state troopers were rushed to the games sites to help out.

One bright spot amid the chaos was the announcement by Lake Placid Olympic Committee (LPOC) officials that people who failed to make it to the games due to transportation snafus would get their money refunded. When and how the refunds would be made was still up in the air. But the move was seen as an attempt to protect the LPOC from a raft of anticipated lawsuits by spectators who never made it to scheduled events.

However, refunding money to spectators also will drain the LPOC's cash balance, which already has been severely eaten away by overtime pay and other cost factors.

At the same time, many connected with the committee are known to be concerned that a shortage of funds will mean that they never see their last paychecks. One worker reported that a bank in nearby Saranac Lake refused to cash his check from the committee.

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