PITTSFIELD -- It's been building for several years -- like a fiscal tsunami, moving at a glacial pace.
Soon, however, Pittsfield sewer ratepayers will experience the surge in their bills required to fund an estimated $40 million in mandated wastewater treatment plant improvements.
"Obviously, there will be a major impact on the sewer rates," Commissioner of Public Utilities Bruce I. Collingwood said during an interview. "There will be a big jump down the road. It is coming."
The mandate stems from a 2008 federal Environmental Protection Agency decision that revised Pittsfield's federal wastewater discharge permit for its plant on Holmes Road. The new, tougher discharge standards require the removal of more aluminum and phosphorus before treated water is dumped into the Housatonic River.
City put up a fight
Pittsfield appealed those changes to the EPA, but was rejected in 2009. The city then appealed to the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. In 2010, that court upheld the EPA's decision.
In February 2011, the city received a specific administrative order from the regional EPA office in Boston that spelled out a timetable for feasibility studies, design and construction phases of the upgrades required to bring the plant into compliance. It also calls for regular testing of discharge levels for the pollutants and specifies that regular reports be submitted to state and federal environmental regulators.
While years ago some federal grant funding was available for sewer and water system improvements, that hasn't been the case for some time, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said.
"Unfortunately, there have been cutbacks in every one of those programs," he said. "In the past, there used to be pretty generous funding from the federal government."
The EPA can, however, still "dictate what they want and force communities to do it," he said.
The mayor added that Pittsfield is not alone in facing a required municipal plant upgrade with little prospect of federal assistance. He spoke with a number of other officials with similar problems during a recent National League of Cities conference.
‘A significant bump'
Other than checking with the area's state and federal legislators for available funding, the city can only attempt to get the most favorable bond interest rate for the design and construction work, Bianchi said. When the bond details become clear, the effect on sewer rates will emerge.
How high will sewer system rates jump because of the bond? That isn't clear yet, but city officials note that borrowing rates now are historically low, and Pittsfield's sewer user fee rate is the lowest in the state. System ratepayers this year pay $210 per 120 cubic feet of wastewater, while the highest rate in Massachusetts is just over $1,400, Collingwood said.
"It will be a significant bump," said Ward 5 City Councilor Jonathan Lothrop, chairman of the council's Finance Committee. "But it is the right thing to do, and we have to do it."
Lothrop added that Collingwood has brought forth this and other city sewer, water and infrastructure projects in regular, planned stages while keeping the mayor and councilors informed. "I have to give Bruce credit on this," Lothrop said.
Asked to estimate the cost of the bond, Lothrop said many factors would have to be known first. But he noted that if $30 million is the amount borrowed over 30 years, the average annual payment would be more than $1 million a year.
Face the consequences
In dealing with non-compliance with an administrative order, the government also can impose fines on the operator of the facility, in this case the city. None are now associated with the Pittsfield project, EPA officials said.
As part of an EPA order that led to a $6.3 million upgrade at the Hoosac Water Quality District wastewater plant in Williamstown during 2005-08, the district also paid $65,000 in fines and another $35,000 to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
That order related to the excess water flows into the plant, which serves the town and North Adams, that had plagued the facility since it opened in 1971, plant Chief Operator Bradley Furlon said. The HWQD plant has been in compliance with the requirements for about a decade, following plant and sewer line improvements.
Elsewhere in the county, Lee recently met new water discharge pollutant levels set by the EPA, said wastewater system Superintendent Alan Zerbato. However, that came after the system -- which dates to 1968 -- was completely upgraded in 2008 at a cost of $22.2 million. The town received a low-interest loan, Zerbato said, but no major grant funding.
Great Barrington is due for a discharge permit renewal notice from the EPA, but at the moment is not required to undertake any major upgrades, said DPW Superintendent Joe Sokul. He said he doesn't expect major changes will be required.
Concerning the pending Pittsfield upgrade, Collingwood said a request for proposals for the best method of lowering the aluminum and phosphorus levels was posted in April 2012. With the help of a city engineering consultant Kleinfelder, those responses were reviewed and two pilot tests using wastewater from the plant were conducted by different vendor firms in September and October 2012.
Both methods proved effective in lowering the discharge levels, the commissioner said, but there are differences in how each might affect staffing and mesh with existing plant processes. Those differences are being analyzed.
The next step will be for the city to decide with Kleinfelder's help which treatment method will work best here and to contract for design of a subsidiary facility at the plant site. There, wastewater will be treated after it has been through the current treatment process, before being discharged to the river.
If Kleinfelder engineering, an international firm that has worked on several projects for the city, is chosen to design the upgrade as well, Collingwood said the process "could go very quickly."
However, if the city must seek design proposals from other firms as well to comply with bidding laws, that could add months to the process. "But basically, at this point, we are heading into the design phase," he said.
Collingwood estimated that actual construction could begin in two to three years.
George W. Harding, an environmental engineer with the EPA's regional office, said the city will submit a report to the agency when the method of treatment and plans for the design work are known. The EPA will consider both feasibility aspects of the plan and might offer comment, he said, and it will look at the city's timetable for the project.
Harding said that in setting discharge permit pollutant levels, the EPA looks at the levels in the river and the effects. "It is complicated," he said of the process of determining discharge limits. "Everything is integrated."
Collingwood said the city "is complying, and intends to comply" with the EPA order, "but it was frustrating."
He said that despite several attempts by the city during its appeal to arrange meetings to discuss the new discharge levels, the EPA "did not want to talk about it." Pittsfield was merely seeking "good technical communication all along the way on what they're doing," he said.
EPA spokesman James Murphy said it is the policy of the agency to meet with local officials to discuss the reasons behind environmental decisions. He said he did not know details of the specific case, but added that the city's formal appeals of the permit levels may have "put things in a different light" in terms of open communication.
Collingwood said that while the cost of the project is significant, the long-term goal of modernizing the sewer and water systems -- and transportation infrastructure -- is a crucial one. He and Bianchi said they see the issue as intertwined with future economic development in Pittsfield.
"Unfortunately, that might not be much consolation when the bill comes," he said.
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