GOLD HILL — The city's ailing wastewater treatment plant along Highway 234 isn't collecting as much waste as expected, leading city and state officials this week to extend the timeline — by as much as two years — for finding the best fix for the failing facility.
Deemed last year to be at risk for catastrophic failure and a potential threat to the Rogue River, the facility is the subject of an ongoing assessment to determine whether the plant should be replaced, rehabilitated or closed.
The plant has been in violation of state and federal laws for more than a decade for releasing increasingly high levels — up to 440 percent of legal limits — into the Rogue River. The cash-strapped city signed an agreement with the Department of Environmental Quality last year agreeing to remedy the situation by February 2014.
City Manager Rick Hohnbaum told the City Council this week that unexplained problems with the city's sewer collection system had raised concerns that could affect how the city proceeds with the facility.
Both immediate and longer-term repairs to the collection system could delay the project by up to two years, or around June 2016, Hohnbaum said.
"The primary point is that what we are receiving for flow is not the standard for our population, so the questions are, "Where is this flow going or is it nonexistent?' " Hohnbaum said.
"We don't want to go spend six to eight million dollars on a waste-water treatment plant, or rehab the one we have, if we don't know what our actual flow needs to be."
The plant was constructed in 1982 using a two-part "redundant" design, which requires that two identical sides of the plant be online so each can provide a backup for the other and so one side can be taken offline for cleaning on a regular basis.
One of the city's more significant issues was that one side had been used to treat sludge, essentially eliminating the much-needed backup for waste-water collection and treatment for at least the past decade and a half.
Gasik said this week that both sides are expected to be operational by January.
An additional issue, he noted, is that flow meters at the plant are not working properly. Gasik estimated that only three-quarters of the system could be viewed using special cameras.
"At this point, they can't really say what they do and don't need to fix because they can't get a camera in to assess the condition of the entire collection system. And they need one to two winters worth of flow to determine what kind levels they need to plan for," he said.
"Where they're at now versus where they were a year ago is much, much better. The unit they're using now is much better than the one they were using, and after the first of the year they'll be able to take each side offline and clean them out."
"There's just too much mystery in our collection system, and everyone involved would like to get the mystery solved before we move forward on such a large project," Hohnbaum said.
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.