PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell used a charter objection Tuesday night to halt a vote on a $74 million upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant.
The administration is seeking authority to borrow for the upgrades to comply with an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrative order that calls for significantly decreasing the amount of phosphorus and aluminum treatment released into the Housatonic River. The plan developed in consultation with Klienfelder also calls for a nitrogen optimization process.
Connell and Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers and Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo pressed consultant Alan Wells of Kleinfelder, an engineering company, on a number of issues Tuesday night. The council also spent about an hour and a half in executive session with legal consultation. Mazzeo attempted to push off the vote some more, but her motion to table was rejected. That's when Connell used the charter objection, which calls for a stoppage of debate until the next meeting.
"I think we have time," Mazzeo said.
Council President Peter Marchetti believed the objection was not applicable, because the charter says it can be used only the first time an item is brought forth for consideration and this has been an ongoing issue for years. However, City Solicitor Richard Dohoney provided an opinion that Connell's objection would stand.
"I think the argument is made that the question was first put forth tonight because there was a motion tonight," Dohoney said.
"We are doing what we need to do. We need to continue to work with our federal delegation to bring in funding to subsidize this project and other projects." Council Vice President John Krol said. "This is a big price tag for us. Nobody likes to vote in favor of this because of the nature of it, but this is what we have to do right now."
Krol characterized the expense as an "unfunded mandate" from the federal government. The city is being forced to make these upgrades to comply with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, which regulates the levels of those chemicals flowing into the Housatonic River in compliance with the Clean Water Act. That permit was issued in 2008 and the city has fought it in court.
Ultimately, the city lost and an agreement was put in place to break ground on the project this August, with compliance with the permit coming the following year.
Should the city miss those deadlines, the EPA has the authority to issue fines. After the Finance Committee's vote to reject the borrowing, the EPA wrote a strongly worded letter to Marchetti reinforcing the agency's willingness to do so.
"Reversal of support at this late stage would make it extremely unlikely that the city could meet its obligations under the 2015 order. Further delay also will result in increased costs of the upgrades and in the ongoing discharge of higher levels of pollutant to the Housatonic River for an even longer period of time. In light of the history of this matter and the importance of the upgrades to the protection of human health and the environment, please be advised that EPA is prepared to take further enforcement as necessary to ensure compliance with the requirements of the permit should the city fail to meet its obligation to begin construction by August 1, 2018," reads the letter penned by Karen McGuire, acting director of the office of environmental stewardship.
The council met with attorneys to discuss the past litigation surrounding the issue -- particularly after Mazzeo raised concerns over how the previous appeal was handled -- and to consider any future legal actions. And then the council turned its eyes at Wells, and sharply questioned the system the consultants designed.
Rivers questioned the firm's record of recommending technologies, and Wells said the equipment chosen for this project is what Kleinfelder typically recommends.
"It is not only the one I am comfortably recommending but the one that was more effective through a public process," Wells said, saying it has been seven or eight years since he recommended a different type of system.
Wells said the bidding was specifically designed to get competitive quotes from two companies that sell the equipment.
Rivers questioned the nitrogen optimization system, which isn't in the administrative order but Wells believes will save the city the cost of electricity, construction of another clarifier, and protects the city from another permit that could require even less nitrogen be discharged.
Right now, the city is in compliance but Superintendent Carl Shaw says the numbers are creeping up and with the new process, keeping in compliance would difficult. He said the new system is completely different from the current one.
"You don't have to do it. It makes perfect sense to do it, that's why I recommended it," Wells said.
Rivers wasn't satisfied though. She then pressed Wells on the details of the system, digging into the weeds in an attempt to determine whether or not it is more cost effective for the city to do a nitrogen optimization system.
"I got the sales pitch part of the presentation, that was incredibly clear to me, but I think understanding wastewater 101 is what we need to make a decision," Rivers said.
Shaw said right now the city is doing "the bare minimum to remove nitrogen" right now. He said the brand new system will impact the effectiveness of removal, which in turn could require additional equipment. He rejected float systems saying, "they're garbage. That is old technology."
Mazzeo questioned the permit itself, looking to compare the levels imposed on the city versus others along the Housatonic River. Wells said the level for phosphorous is similar to most of the other permits issued in Massachusetts. The EPA's letter specifically cites the phosphorous levels discharged from the city as currently being high.
"Pittsfield's wastewater treatment plant is a significant contributor of phosphorus to the Housatonic discharge basin. It is widely understood that elevated levels of nutrients stimulate rapid plant and algae growth, inhibiting navigation and recreation and negatively impacting water quality. Excess nutrients have caused algal bloods in the river and impoundments, causing harm to the aquatic environment and posing a risk to human health," McGuire wrote.
Connell also pressed Wells on his firm's interest in the project. He asked what the consultant's fees are for the project, and Wells didn't have an answer.
"We are less than 10 percent as a firm," Wells responded, saying the ultimate payment would be between 5 and 10 percent.
Connell questioned why Klienfelder hasn't had a role in wastewater plant designers Veolia or Suez and the public-private partnerships those companies have reached. And Connell asked about getting loan money through the Army Corps of Engineers.
"I can assure you, if there was grant money out there you would have it," Wells said.
The expense will cause a steep increase in sewer bills for residents. The sewer system also services parts of Dalton, Hinsdale, Lanesborough, Lenox, and Richmond, which also will see increases in rates. And a similar project is expected in the next few years for the water treatment plant.
"We are looking at the water treatment plant as well. There are a couple things we will be looking at this fiscal year," Commissioner of Public Services David Turocy said, adding that the department is looking to hold off on major upgrades as long as possible to temper the rate increases.
However, Turocy does not have an estimate on how much the rates will increase. He says he is embarking on a rate analysis now and will determine the future increases soon.
The meeting went late into the evening and just before 12:30 a.m. Wednesay morning, Mazzeo pushed to table the discussion for another two weeks, to no avail. She only found supporters in Rivers, Connell, and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi.
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