$14 million plant upgrade proposed

This article appeared on May 28, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

At least $14 million worth of improvements to Gardner’s Wastewater Treatment Facility could be on the horizon due to old equipment and future federal regulations.

“At 30 years old, the technology is obsolete, parts are hard to find, and the pumps, electrical units and other devices are well beyond their useful and efficient life,” said Director of Public Works Dane Arnold. Additionally, “we will be receiving a new permit from the Environmental Protection Agency shortly (which was expected in February 2014) that will most likely force the city to have to reduce the concentration of nitrogen in the plant’s discharge.”

On Wednesday, the Finance Committee unanimously recommended a $14 million loan order to the City Council following a presentation by Mr. Arnold. The project would be funded through a gradual increase in the sewer rate, the city’s first hike in seven years.

“I agree we should get in front of this now,” said Councillor Marc Morgan, who sits on the Finance Committee and is chairman of the Public Service Committee. “The system is getting antiquated and fixing it before it breaks is the way to go.”

The sewer rate is now $4.10 per 100 cubic feet. If the plan is approved, the rate would likely rise to $4.50 in 2016, $4.76 in 2017, and $5 in 2018.

Mr. Arnold said it’s hard to predict the increase after 2018 because the contract with United Water, the private company that handles the operation of the plant, expires and decisions will need to be made about the sludge landfill.

The improvements would fix issues where sewage enters and water leaves the plant, as well as address problems with electrical and software components. The EPA has stated that portions of the facility are in “dire need of repair.”

For example, in high flow conditions like heavy rain, sometimes the headworks — where sewage is accepted into the plant — fails, sending “materials” into parts of the facility where they aren’t meant to be, Mr. Arnold said. He cautioned that these failures could eventually lead to a fine from the EPA.

The city has not been ordered to make these improvements by the state or federal government at this point. However, Mr. Arnold said it’s inevitable that the city will one day be mandated to make improvements.

If the city were to wait for that day, he said rate payers might see a sharp increase in rates and the city would have to rush through changes. This, Mr. Arnold cautioned, is what happened in Fitchburg in 2012 when the city was required to meet stricter requirements — and residents’ bills spiked by 60 percent as a result.

“We owe it to our rate payers to phase this upgrade in on our timeline, not a timeline that forces us to upgrade our rates in two years,” Mr. Arnold said.

He also said that if the city waits for equipment to fail, such as the headworks and belt filter press, it will cause problems.

“If we can implement a plan and approach, it will no doubt go more smoothly than if one day they stop working and we have an emergency on our hands,” Mr. Arnold said.

The main reason this is appearing before city councillors now is because Gardner recently became eligible for state revolving loan funds at a 2 percent interest rate. As the city’s interest rate is 3.25 percent, over the life of the loan it would save rate payers about $1 million if the lower rate is secured, according to officials.

To get the lower rate, however, the paperwork — including the City Council’s approval — has to be into the state by June 30.

The project is phase one of a three-part plan to upgrade the facility. The second phase would upgrade the nitrogen treatment process, depending on what the EPA calls for, and could cost an additional $10 to $15 million, Mr. Arnold said. The final phase will address how the city handles its sludge disposal.

Mr. Arnold is expected to give a presentation to the full council before its first meeting in June.


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