Wastewater: Need for expansion

Published 10:58 am Thursday, January 14, 2010

AHOSKIE – A water/sewer rate increase implemented by the Town of Ahoskie in July of last year was met, as expected, with opposition.

Town citizens and business owners, some seeing their monthly bills more than double in size, turned out in force at Ahoskie Council meetings to voice their displeasure. Even an adjustment in those rates, approved by the town council in August, did little to calm the critics, some of whom continue to lobby Ahoskie’s leaders to lower the water/sewer rates.

Now, five months later, Ahoskie officials are formally responding to the measures that town government felt it had to take in order to prepare for future growth.

In a two-part series that begins in today’s edition, the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald will publish the town’s reasoning for raising the rates. Part one deals with the $17.87 million upgrade to Ahoskie’s wastewater treatment plant, a project that when completed in January of next year will nearly double the town’s wastewater capacity that, in turn, will open the door for economic growth.

At Tuesday’s Ahoskie Town Council meeting, Stewart White, Superintendent of the town’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, provided a timeline of sewer service in town since 1964. His presentation was highlighted by Ahoskie’s need to spend nearly $18 million on a new plant.

The early days

Wastewater treatment and disposal for Ahoskie has experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat over the years.

In 1964, the town constructed a treatment facility on Rhue Street, one where the effluent was discharged into the Ahoskie Creek, which is part of the Chowan River Basin. Fifteen years later (1979), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) declared the Chowan River as a nutrient sensitive waterway. That led the Department of Water Quality (DWQ) to ban all treatment plants from discharging effluent into the Chowan River Basin.

Ahoskie was forced to look into another method of wastewater disposal. In the mid-to-late 80’s, the town invested $4.4 million into a facility located off the Johnny Mitchell Road. There, wastewater was collected in a 32-acre lagoon, capable of holding 94 million gallons. That water was then treated and disposed of via a vast system of sprayer heads that spread the effluent onto sprayfields. At that time, the plant was capable of treating 0.781 million gallons per day.

In 1990, DENR filed a civil action against the town, one that stated the Ahoskie wastewater treatment plant was in violation of the state’s water quality standards and was unable to fully comply with its operational permit.

That action forced Ahoskie to invest additional funds in an effort to remedy the civil action. The town leased or outright purchased an additional 124.93 acres to expand its sprayfields. That $200,000 expansion increased the treatment plant’s capacity to 0.901 million gallons per day.

“Even with that we were still experiencing some problems with run-off,” White said. “We did everything we could to prevent that run-off, including the planting of 66 acres of trees, with the help of NC State University, that we hoped would absorb some of the ground water.”

Despite the run-off woes, the treatment plant was honored in 1998 by the United States Environmental Protection Agency with a first-place award in Region 4 (all southeastern U.S. states) for overall operations and excellence in maintenance. In the national competition, Ahoskie placed second to a treatment plant in Hawaii.

Hurricane Floyd

In the spring and early summer months of 1999, White and his staff were working at their normal rapid pace, making great headway in keeping the lagoon level low, thus paving the way for a typical slower pace during the wet months of winter.

Then, in September of that year, a pair of tropical weather systems, one of historic magnitude, made all that preparation work a meaningless effort.

“First with Tropical Storm Dennis and then Hurricane Floyd, we received over 26 inches of rain in a very short period of time,” White recalled. “The lagoon filled up and we couldn’t operate the sprayfields because the ground was too saturated.”

Those problems did not go unnoticed by the state. In the early part of 2000, DWQ inspectors used aerial reconnaissance missions over central and eastern portions of the state to identify problem areas and assess environmental impacts.

In Ahoskie, DWQ officials found a full wastewater lagoon. Estimates were that tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater run-off had found its way into the Ahoskie Creek.

Ahoskie was placed under a moratorium, meaning it could not accept any additional wastewater at the treatment plant; a fact that prevented any economic growth in town. Additionally, the town was issued a Special Order of Consent (SOC) to operate its treatment plant.

Meanwhile, the town launched an effort to find a way to expand its wastewater treatment facility. Among those numerous plans was a developing a regional system, one bringing in sewage from nearby towns, treating that water and piping it for industrial reuse for a proposed electrical co-generation station planned near Millennium. That business, GenPower, announced in 2004 it was abandoning its Hertford County project.

Back to the drawing board

With GenPower out of the picture, Ahoskie officials began to study other ideas to expand its treatment facility while still living under the DWQ moratorium and SOC.

One such plan, devised later in 2004, was to purchase 1,500 acres and expand the sprayfield operation. The price tag was a whopping $30 million.

“Other than that amount of money, the biggest downside to that proposal was that the town wasn’t promised one single drop of added wastewater capacity,” White said. “It didn’t make financial sense to spend that kind of money and not have the added capacity we so desperately needed.”

Another plan was to construct a new treatment facility for industrial reuse purposes for Hertford County Nucor. That plan was derailed due to the high price tag (an estimated $5.5 million) the town would be forced to pay just to install the piping between Ahoskie and the Nucor plant.

“The town was stagnant in growth at that time,” White said. “We didn’t have enough capacity to even allow for the building of new homes in town.”

To complicate matters, the town’s aging system of sewer lines were suffering from groundwater infiltration. That led Ahoskie officials to spend $1.8 million in 2008 to identify and fix those problems.

Coming full circle

After studying a wide range of improvement plans, Ahoskie officials settled in on a project that is currently under construction. The technology behind that project – a Biological Nutrient Removal System – treats the wastewater to such a high degree that it can now be discharged into the Ahoskie Creek, without any environmental affects on the Chowan River Basin.

“We’ve come full circle; from a discharge plant in 1964, to a sprayfield operation between 1988 and current, and now back to a discharge plant by 2011 (the scheduled completion of the project),” White said.

White added, “I had a state inspector to tell me that this project was Ahoskie’s best option. It will nearly double our capacity and allow for business and residential growth in the town.”

There is another piece of Ahoskie’s wastewater treatment puzzle that may fall into place. Hertford County Renewable Energy is moving forward on a project similar to GenPower. It will need up to 1.3 million gallons of water per day for its production process.

With that in mind, Ahoskie’s new treatment plant includes a 300,000 gallon reclaim water tank, one that stores treated wastewater for industrial reuse or irrigational purposes. White said Ahoskie could fulfill a portion of the proposed plant’s need for water, lessening the amount the town discharges into the Ahoskie Creek.

Next: Water is free; delivering the product and maintaining the infrastructure is not.