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Ahoskie looks to cut through the red tape

AHOSKIE – The Town of Ahoskie has been asked by state officials to move quickly in bringing their Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) into compliance by November of 2009.

A plan is in place to abide by those wishes; the hold-up is varying opinions from state officials if the plan will work.

At a workshop held at Town Hall on Friday, Ahoskie leaders met with State Senator Ed Jones in an effort to cut through the red tape in Raleigh.

At stake in this process is a chance for growth in Ahoskie. The town has wrestled with WWTP expansion for the past eight years and has studied various options, all to no avail.

In the meantime, growth has bypassed the town as Ahoskie must operate its WWTP under a Special Order of Consent from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality (DWQ). That government entity has limited the amount of wastewater the town can treat and apply to their existing sprayfields, thus preventing Ahoskie from inviting in prospective new businesses that have expressed an interest in locating here.

At Friday’s meeting, Ahoskie officials expressed their frustrations in dealing with DWQ.

“Right now we’re stagnated with DWQ in the permitting process of our proposed WWTP expansion,” Town Manager Tony Hammond said. “One (DWQ official) will say that our plan will work and for us to move forward and then another say it will not work and for us to look at other options. We’re out of options. We have to have our new WWTP on line by May of 2009 and in total compliance by November of that year or face daily fines. If we are going to do this, we’ve got to start now….right now.”

Senator Jones said it sounded to him as if there was too much in fighting among the DWQ section chiefs.

“I will call a meeting in Raleigh of all the concerned parties in this issue and we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Jones said. “You give me the names of those who need to be at that table and let’s make this happen.”

Earlier in the meeting, Jones was brought up to speed on Ahoskie’s WWTP expansion plans. The latest of those ideas involves Nucor Steel of Hertford County, taking and treating wastewater from the town of Powellsville and possibly discharging any excess into the Ahoskie Creek.

On the planning table is to pipe up to 1.3 million gallons of treated wastewater (Ahoskie’s and Powellsville’s) daily to Nucor for industrial reuse. Nucor uses groundwater to cool the steel during its production process. Another 300,000 gallons of treated wastewater will be applied daily to the town’s existing sprayfields. Any remaining wastewater not needed by Nucor or that cannot be handled by the sprayfields will be discharged into the Ahoskie Creek.

It’s the last part of the plan that DWQ officials disagree upon. Since water in the Ahoskie Creek eventually snakes its way to the Chowan River and since the Chowan is declared a “nutrient sensitive” waterway, it becomes a hard sell to convince the state that this part of the plan will work.

On the upside are technological advances in treating wastewater. Those advances are incorporated into Ahoskie’s new WWTP.

Dan Boone, who serves Ahoskie as the engineer on the expansion project, told Senator Jones that all the environmental assessments have been completed and no impacts were found.

“It’s critical that we move forward now on this project in order to meet the compliance dates,” Boone said.

Meanwhile, the financing of this $15.364 million project is also in place. Of that amount, Ahoskie has been approved for a $10.286 million, low interest loan from the USDA. The remainder is in the form of grants, most notably $3 million from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.

However, the $10-plus million loan may result in sewer user fees going through the roof. Currently, Ahoskie residents pay $24.60 per month, based on 6,000 gallons usage, for sewage disposal. That rate is projected to climb to $53.70.

Jones and members of the Ahoskie Town Council expressed great concern over the projected rate hike, as did Powellsville Mayor Thomas Asbell.

One way to alleviate a portion of the 118 percent increase was for Ahoskie to seek other grant funding in order to lower the amount they must borrow. Senate Bill 208 was brought into the discussion. That bill, introduced in February and now being studied within the Senate’s Committee on Finance, calls for the “Clean Water Act of 2007” to be sent to voters in a statewide referendum. In order to address statewide critical infrastructure needs by providing funds for grants and loans for wastewater and drinking water projects, voter approval is needed for $500 million in bonds to assist counties and towns with their needs.

Since Ahoskie will hopefully be in the process of its WWTP expansion project prior to the bond issue coming before the voters, Boone suggested to Senator Jones that if the voters approve the measure, some sort of wording needed to be included that will provide assistance to towns like Ahoskie that have already began construction. Jones urged Boone to put in writing what type of wording needs to be added.