Pittsfield City Council Finance Committee grapples with path forward for costly wastewater upgrades
PITTSFIELD — Could the Scott Pruitt era of softening Environmental Protection Agency regulations provide financial relief for the city?
That's what some city councilors want to know. The City Council Finance Committee voted to send a $74 million borrowing authorization for mandated wastewater plant upgrades forward with a negative recommendation, with Ward 4 Councilor Chris Connell and Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi asserting it's the council's fiduciary responsibility to explore whether costly upgrades in the pipeline still stand in light of promises from President Donald Trump's administration to cut back government overreach.
"A lot of things have changed," Morandi said, citing the city's financially strapped state and the presidential changeover that's occurred since the order was issued. "I just don't think we should be jumping into anything."
Council President Peter Marchetti and Councilor At Large Earl Persip voted for a positive recommendation, while Connell, Morandi and Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo voted against. Mazzeo pointed to the city's appeals of the mandates, dating back to 2011. She said she found her review of the documents frustrating, given it seems the appeals were denied not based on merits but on insufficient paperwork.
"It just blows my mind," she said of the appeals process. Plus, she said, "we can't afford this."
Finance Director Matt Kerwood reminded councilors the EPA issued a timeline following the appeals, and the city agreed to meet the deadlines. Anything outside of that agreed-upon timeline, consultants said, not only opens the city up to fines but also to citizens empowered through the Clean Water Act to sue the city for failing to meet new limits on how much aluminum, phosphorus and nitrogen is discharged into the Housatonic River.
Kerwood said the city has already spent about $8 million toward the project.
"I understand your frustration," he said. "On many levels we share it, too — $74 million is a lot of money."
Persip pointed out the project's price tag has already risen from $40 million in 2013 to $74 million.
"We've been kicking the can down the road since 2008," he said. "Costs keep going up."
Al Wells, of Kleinfelder, the firm overseeing the project, said Pittsfield is an outlier when it comes to complying with state and federal guidelines regarding effluents in rivers.
"Most of them have complied, to my knowledge," Wells said.
Wells said regulations placed on municipalities differ depending on where their discharge ends up. In the city's case, he said, discharge travels down the Housatonic River and into the Long Island Sound.
"Pittsfield is the largest discharger of nitrogen to the Housatonic River in Massachusetts," Wells said, and this makes the planned upgrades "a project of interest" to the EPA and the Department of Environmental Protection.
As for sewer rate increases, Kerwood said they're still working on the details but promised he would tie rates to the debt and tier it in a way that's manageable.
The upgrades involve work on the city water plant's dewatering system, secondary clarifiers, tertiary treatment system and nitrogen removal mechanisms. Wells said the firm worked hard to keep costs down. Commissioner of Public Services David Turocy said there were previously no limits on aluminum and nitrogen effluents, and the administrative order cut phosphorus limits down to about a tenth of the previous limit.
Connell said he found it hard to believe the EPA would care about nitrogen when there are PCBs in the river.
"Some of these communities could go bankrupt," Mazzeo said. "I just don't understand how it could be that stringent."
Craig Gaetani, who worked for years as worldwide director of technical marketing for the Krofta engineering corporation, Krofta Waters, won an audience with councilors during the meeting. In his presentation he said aluminum in the effluent comes from the city's own water filtration plant and there are less expensive ways to fulfill the mandates, pointing to the flotation technology he said Krofta specialized in.
Gaetani said the city could take an innovative stance that leads the region on the issue, and then they could sell the designs.
"I'm trying to help you tonight," he said. "I'm here this evening giving you good information for free."
Reach Amanda Drane at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter or at 413-496-6296.
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