GOLD HILL — The city must replace its failing sewer treatment plant to avoid possible catastrophic contamination of the Rogue River or face steep fines, environmental officials warn.
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality sent a pre-enforcement notice to city officials Oct. 31, giving them until mid-December to come up with a plan for bringing its sewer treatment into compliance.
The DEQ noted 15 water quality violations since March, including four Class 1 — the most serious under state law. Most violations had to do with the amount of suspended solids in treated wastewater. In the most egregious violation, which occurred in August, the city's suspended solids exceeded federal standards by 440 percent.
Bringing the sewer treatment system into compliance will mean replacing the 30-year-old facility along Highway 234, officials say, as the plant already has exceeded its recommended lifespan by 10 years.
Replacement costs could mean doubling or tripling residents' sewer and water rates, officials say.
The City Council voted Nov. 19 to work with the DEQ in developing a plan for short- and long-term solutions by the mid-December deadline.
The plant was built in 1982 with grant dollars in a two-part "redundant" system — meaning two sides of the plant are identical to allow use of just one side during lower-flow months so maintenance can be performed on the other, said DEQ senior engineer Jon Gasik.
"Essentially, they're supposed to be able to operate with either half so that if something breaks on one half, you have the other side to fall back on," said Gasik.
"Back when they changed the rules and required more treatment of sludge, the city took half of the plant and turned it into sludge treatment, which I think was supposed to just be a temporary solution until they could build more areas for sludge treatment. But it became a permanent solution."
It is unlikely the side used for sludge treatment could be made functional again for wastewater treatment, he said.
Gasik said the water-quality violations indicate some level of failure in plant operation.
"They've got a 30-year-old plant and they haven't been able to take the half they're using offline to see if anything is going on," he said.
"If that mechanical side they're relying on now were to seize or fail, they would be dumping unimaginable amounts of raw sewage into the Rogue River."
Council President Sam Blake, whose term in office will end in December, said problems with the plant had "been going on since '95."
"It's bad over there, and I've been saying it since I've been on council," Blake said. "I've been pushing to get something done. I ran for re-election on the issue of educating citizens about what's going on in the city.
"It's sad that residents are just now going to find out that the city is in the shape that it's in."
Blake lost re-election by eight votes to Doug Reischman, a local business owner.
Blake cautioned that while the cost of repairs and rebuilding of the plant have been estimated at between $5 million and $12 million, the higher estimates are more likely.
"They keep throwing this $5 million figure out there, but that would be just for a band-aid," Blake said.
"Residents are going to be looking at $50 to $100 (extra) a month. Their bills are already $60 minimum a month. That would mean $110 to $160."
Interim City Manager Dale Shaddox said the city would evaluate all potential methods of financing the project, possibly spreading out collection of the expenses from residents over a five-year period.
It could take up to four years of planning and securing funding before construction of a new plant could begin, city officials say.
Former councilor Dorothy Edler urged the city to find outside funding, rather than pass increases on to residents after a large increase to sewer and water rates was enacted earlier this year.
"(Citizens) are the ones paying the bill out here, and you know what? We would be more comfortable as payers of this money if you said we're trying to do other avenues. That language should be in there," Edler said, noting that further increases would be hard on residents.
"How long are these horrible increases going to go on? Are they going to end some year or are they going to continue forever, as long as Gold Hill is a town?"