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Flush with Problems

GOLD HILL — Trying to head off what could turn into an environmental catastrophe, city officials are looking for solutions for a failing wastewater treatment plant that has violated state rules at a rate of almost twice a month since March.

With the state putting pressure on the city to respond sooner rather than later, city residents are facing the likelihood of substantial fee increases to water and sewer rates to replace the 30-year-old facility that was deemed in violation of state and federal standards as early as 1995.

Federal and DEQ officials have warned the city for nearly two decades that the plant was not being operated according to design and say it should have been replaced at least a decade ago. Now, with increasingly high levels of contaminants being discharged into the Rogue River, state officials are threatening to levy steep fines if a corrective course of action is not developed by mid-December.

The sewer plant has accumulated 15 water quality violations since March, including four Class 1 violations — the most serious under state law. Most violations involved excessive suspended solids in the treated wastewater, with the most severe infraction occurring when suspended solids exceeded federal standards by 440 percent in August.

Both relative newcomers to the city, interim Manager Dale Shaddox and public works Director Rick Cushman met with various engineers at the facility this week. Over the loud churning of decades-old equipment and gurgling sewage, Shaddox outlined a proposal costing $10 million to $12 million that would pay for replacement of the plant by 2019.

Shaddox said the $10 million figure likely was the lowest possible cost, while $12 million would be the cost associated with building a new plant.

At a Dec. 17 council meeting, city officials plan to sign an agreement with the DEQ, addressing the plans for remedying the shortcomings of the plant.

Built in 1982 with grant dollars, the treatment plant is a two-part "redundant" system — meaning two sides of the plant are identical to allow use of one side while the other is maintained. But changes to environmental laws on sludge treatment found the city modifying the facility for sludge treatment in the mid-1990s.

"The half we're not using is being used for sludge storage and some aeration and treatment. Over the years, when things came up, they took parts off the nonworking half to fix the other side," Shaddox said.

"We're hoping to get it back into shape so we can limp along for five years, then the other side can be drawn down to see what's going on."

While not standard operating procedure, Shaddox said, the state has indicated it would issue a permit to allow the city to haul untreated sludge. That would allow the city to use both halves of the plant for wastewater treatment.

Hauling costs alone could tally between $2,000 and $10,000 per month, passed along to 440 water-sewer customers at a rate of $5 to $25 each month. Shaddox said he was hopeful that needed short-term repairs and design plans for plant replacement could be accomplished for the $200,000 in available reserves.

Long term, the city is faced with the options of refurbishing and rebuilding the North Second Avenue plant, building a new facility or connecting to a neighboring community wastewater system.

Cushman, who came on board in March, said the plant is a daily challenge for public works crews, particularly since it no longer has redundant capabilities.

"It's definitely in worse shape than I expected it would be before I came here. They did what they could do but maintenance just is not possible with the way it's set up now, so any little thing that comes up, you have to handle it where before you could bypass the side with the problem and work on it," Cushman said.

"It's hard getting much of anything else done when we're just chasing our tail to keep this running."

Steve Schnurbusch, acting manager of the water quality permitting division of the Oregon DEQ, said the city is not alone in being out of compliance with wastewater treatment standards.

While Schnurbusch could not recall an instance of complete failure, he said the threat of such an occurrence would warrant intervention.

"Complete failure would be catastrophic and would impact aquatic life and micro-organisms in the river, impact people who recreate in the Rogue River and would jeopardize downstream drinking water intakes," he said.

"That definitely wouldn't be something we could let sit for the five years they need to fix the problem. We would have to step in and come up with something but we're working with them to try to not have that 'what if.' "

In his decades of city government, Shaddox said, he had never known of a city facing imminent failure of a public facility.

"And we certainly don't want to be the first," he said.

Shaddox said the city is sensitive to residents' concerns about added costs after a $14 monthly increase to water and sewer rates this summer.

"Unfortunately, this is one of those perfect examples of being penny wise and paying for it later. I applaud the staff and council for trying to keep the plant running for as long as it could, but they're going to end up paying double what it would have cost a few years ago," he said.

"We're certainly not expecting any magic money to be coming out of the woodwork, so this just has to be figured out. It isn't something that can just be ignored anymore."

Email freelance reporter Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Mark Owens, a senior engineer with Anderson Perry & Associates, inspects the Gold Hill waste water treatment plant last week. The city’s residents are faced with a huge bill as the state and federal government demand the plant be upgraded.