PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The mayor is asking for the authority to borrow $74 million for a major upgrade of the city's wastewater treatment center.
The expense has been a long time coming, starting with the city seeking to renew its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit in 2005. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversees those permits in an effort to keep waterways clean and had issued a permit in 2008 requiring significantly higher standards of phosphorus, aluminum treatment, and nitrogen removal.
"This is a very expensive and very impactful program to remove nitrogen, tertiary treatment for phosphorous, aluminum, and then we have to make other upgrades to our system associated with that in a secondary clarifier and sludge dewatering," Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities David Turocy told the City Council back in March.
The new standards were set under the Clean Water Act and the city's system doesn't currently conform. The city fought the standards in court but in 2009, a federal judge ruled in favor of the EPA.
"We exhausted all of our appeals and ultimately lost in federal court," Turocy said.
The city had then engaged with the engineering firm Klienfelder to design a new system. In March, the City Council authorized $4.9 million in borrowing to complete the design of the new system — adding to $1 million that had already been spent. Now, the design is apparently complete and Mayor Linda Tyer has submitted a petition asking for the authorization to borrow for the construction.
And she is hoping the council will act quickly. The EPA had issued a consent order setting timelines calling for the construction documents to be ready for bidding by the start of 2018 with actual construction starting this August.
"With that design compete we need to move forward with the construction of this project in accordance with the timeline contained in the EPA administrative order. Therefore, I would ask that you waive rule 27 so that you may discuss and vote on the order at your Jan. 23rd meeting," Tyer wrote in her petition to the City Council.
"A vote on the 23rd is required to ensure that the project remains on schedule. Any variation from that schedule could result in fines being levied on the city by the EPA."
The majority of the councilors have heard a presentation during a City Council of the Whole meeting in the spring of 2017 about the work when the administration asked for the design funds. At that point, the design was only 30 percent complete. Representatives from Klienfelder are expected to prepare an updated presentation to give on Tuesday.
In March, Alan Wells, of Klienfelder, told the council that the company "tried to control the costs as best as we can but it is still a large upgrade." It starts with the construction of a new tertiary treatment process and building.
That adds an additional level of treatment at the plant and currently, the primary systems are working fine, but the secondary systems date back to the 1970s and been pieced together over the years.
"The secondary clarifies are really the weak link," Wells told the council. "They are really at the end of their useful life."
The repairs there are need to ensure the new tertiary treatments work properly, Wells said.
Next, the city needs to expand the capacity of the dewatering plant. That plant helps reduce the disposal cost of sludge but with the rest of the systems being upgraded, Wells said the current equipment is too small. He said the plan is to expand the capacity, but not expand the building. And finally, there is technology to "optimize the removal of nitrogen."
Wells also said that while the cost is high, it is comparative to similar cities and towns that faced the same type of requirements.
"The price tag for this is tremendously high. It is $76 million. It is a tough number but it is what is going to be required of us," Turocy had previously said of the project.
Tyer said $50 million of the borrowing will be through the state's Clean Water trust fund, lowering the interest over the course of the bond. The payments on the borrowing would likely be wrapped into increases to the water and sewer bills — and thus through the water and sewer enterprise accounts.
The City Council had also already approved spending $8.4 million to replace primary pumps at the wastewater treatment plant.
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