City made offer to take county’s wastewater

Published 7:23 pm Friday, February 24, 2012

Last year, when Decatur County government officials were under pressure from the state government to fix the ailing wastewater treatment plant at the county’s industrial park, the City of Bainbridge offered to help out.

City of Bainbridge and Decatur County government officials had discussions related to whether or not the flow from the county’s wastewater treatment plant — located in the county’s Industrial Air Park off U.S. Highway 27 North — could be re-routed to the city’s treatment plant off Cox Avenue in Bainbridge.

Right now, the plan is not being considered due to technical issues and other concerns about whether or not it would be a good idea.

The county’s sticky situation arose in spring 2011, when the Georgia Environmental Protection Division ordered the county to address the issue of raw sewage allegedly finding its way into the Flint River as a result of problems at the county’s treatment plant. Decatur County Commissioners agreed to pay a $15,000 fine and take steps to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, which is about 30 years old.

Bainbridge City Manager Chris Hobby said he and City Engineer Jim York first discussed the idea of re-routing untreated sewage to the city’s recently-upgraded treatment plant, after Hobby read an article about the county’s problems in The Post-Searchlight last May. According to Hobby, the offer was extended out of goodwill and initially well-received by county officials, who were faced with the prospect of spending up to $3 million to fix the county’s treatment plant.

Decatur County is permitted to treat about 1 million gallons of wastewater per day, but on average, its treatment plant only has a volume of about 150,000 to 250,000 gallons per day. That volume would be well within the surplus capacity of Bainbridge’s treatment plant, which is permitted to discharge up to 2.5 million gallons of water per day. The average daily flow of the Cox Avenue plant is only about 1.5 million gallons.

Hobby said the benefit to the county would have been avoiding the major expense of having to upgrade its treatment plant. In recent years, the city paid close to $3 million itself to make the Cox Avenue plant more efficient and continue to comply with environmental standards.

“You’re talking about mechanical parts that wear out over time; you can really only expect about 20 to 25 years of life for a treatment plant before you have to renovate it,” Hobby said.

After pitching about different solutions, the one Hobby and York settled upon would involve using force mains — in which water is forcefully pumped from a lift station — to take flow from the county’s treatment plant off U.S. Highway 27 North to the Cox Avenue plant. If the county accepted the plan, they would be responsible for constructing a new lift station (about $75,000) at the industrial park and picking up the tab for the extension of city sewer lines. Altogether, the project would have an estimated cost of about $1.7 million, York said.

The county’s treatment plant and the city’s treatment plant are on opposite sides of the Flint River; to complete the project, engineers would have to do a procedure, known as directed boring, under the river. While the procedure would require approval of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the waterways, York said the procedure isn’t especially difficult. Directed boring has been used before to take city sewer lines underneath natural gas lines, he said.

County Administrator Tom Patton said that the county’s research proved that trying to join the city’s lines would have been too difficult.

“We really thought it was going to work out at first,” he said. “But as we got into the details of it, we realized that it just wouldn’t work.”

Patton also referenced the need to lay pipes under the Flint River, and stated that it could have been hard to have gotten the Corps of Engineers’ timely cooperation with such an undertaking. He also noted that some of the county’s pipes differed in diameter from the city’s pipes, and other technical differences between the two systems ultimately made the consolidation effort unrealistic.

Another reason county officials may have been hestitant to consider the re-direction offer involves their own permit from the Georgia EPD to process wastewater and put clean, treated water back into the Flint River. The plan would essentially bypass the county’s treatment plant altogether and the associated permit could be revoked by state and federal officials, because it could be deemed no longer needed.

In the long term, if the county were to lose its treatment permit, that would present a problem if a large industrial prospect were successfully recruited to the Industrial Air Park, Hobby said. The park’s wastewater volume would naturally increase. In that scenario, the city would have to upgrade its own treatment plant — a time-consuming, expensive process — to accomodate both the county’s customers and its own.

Hobby said the city would have allowed the county to keep its utility customers at the industrial park, although septic tank waste from county customers would still not have been accepted because of scientific reasons related to how the city’s plant treats waste.

“The city would have treated the county as one customer — they would have been billed the same rates we charge to our customers per 1,000 gallons of use,” Hobby said. “The county could have continued billing its customers at whatever rate they chose. They would have given up some revenue, but at the same time, also saved themselves the costs of operating and maintaining the treatment plant.”

In the end, the re-direction plan was put aside because there was some debate between York, the city’s engineer, and Stacy Watkins of Tifton, Ga. — who handles water and sewer engineering for the county — about whether the load coming from the industrial park would overload the city’s pumps.

County officials have since applied for a federal economic development grant worth about $1.5 million that could pay for a large part of the cost to upgrade the county’s treatment plant. The balance of the upgrade costs will probably be borrowed, according to County Finance Director Carl Rowland. The total cost of the project is expected to be approximately $2.87 million.

Watkins was approached for comment, but deferred all questions to Patton.

Managing Editor Justin Schuver contributed to this story.