Valdosta Daily Times

March 31, 2013

Options limited for wastewater fixes

City of Valdosta facing a consent order from EPD

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Following major spills of wastewater and raw sewage during floods in 2009 and 2013 and an investigation by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division into their cause, the City of Valdosta is making it a priority to address these issues in the budget.

The Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant continues to experience regular overloads during major rain events as a result of inflow and infiltration (I&I) into the city sewer system. Leaks and weak points throughout the system allow rainwater to enter buried mains, leading to manhole discharges and an unmanageable amount of water running through the plant.

The City believes relocating the plant further out of the 100-year flood plain, installing a force main to route sewage uphill and investigating all 300 miles of sewage piping can effectively address the problem.

But this comes with a hefty price tag.

The relocation of the WWTP will cost $20 million, and the force main project $32 million. The investigation and correction of sewer leaks is a revolving budget that is difficult to predict, according to City Manager Larry Hanson.

Funding sources will include a $55.4 million water and sewer budget from revenues from the seventh cycle of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST VII), if it passes in November, as well as new loans from the Georgia Environmental Funding Agency (GEFA).

The SPLOST could potentially fund both the relocation and the force main, but those funds will not be fully collected until the end of 2019, Hanson said. To work around this schedule, the City has applied for a $32 million GEFA loan, of which they’ve been approved for $30 million.

“The goal is to have one of these projects completed in 2014 and one in 2015,” Hanson said. “They have to be paid for at the time they are constructed, before all the (SPLOST) collections come in. The loan is the bridge—it’s the tool to use to accelerate the projects—and we will repay the loan with the SPLOST proceeds.”

These loans through GEFA allow the City to begin critical projects like these far sooner, in a sense opening a state-funded coffer for the City to draw from as-needed and pay back with SPLOST proceeds over time.

However, the City already has seven previous GEFA loans to pay off, totaling in excess of $45.1 million. These loans have purchased water mains, expansions at the Mud Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, pump stations, water storage tanks and expansion of infrastructure to unincorporated islands annexed by the City.

Repayment schedules for these loans extend over a 20-year period, but carry no threat of penalties for breaking that 20-year deadline, according to Mark Barber, Deputy City Manager for Administration. The city currently has two loans past due.

“The GEFA loans are the cheapest way to do it,” Barber said. “It’s a little under 3 percent interest. A bond is higher—about 4.5 to 5 percent.”

All $30 million would go to the force main project under the current draft of the plan and the budget, and the relocation of the WWTP would be paid for from SPLOST revenues. GEFA loans can only be used for the project it is intended to pay for.

The GEFA loans are doled out to communities across the state from a revolving fund, Barber said. Cities apply for the loans, pay for their municipal projects, and are reimbursed by GEFA as they draw from their loan.

Cities have the option not to draw from the fund, and are committed to pay back only what they use, regardless of the amount applied for, Barber said. Though the City of Valdosta has been approved for $30 million, the City could spend any portion of that and would not be responsible for the remainder.

With this agreement, if SPLOST VII fails again in November, the City would have no money with which to pay the additional loan back, and has no answer for what may be the recourse if that becomes the scenario.

“There’s a board approval when a community submits the loan application, and the staff recommends it to the board, and the board approves the loan,” said Shane Hix, Director of Public Affairs for GEFA. “Later, there’s an actual loan execution date when loan documents are signed.”

The time from application to execution varies depending on the project, Hix said.

Every dollar counts in this project, as the City remains under scrutiny from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GEPD), the state arm of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency is currently drafting a Consent Order to force Valdosta into compliance of sewage discharge limits under the federal Clean Water Act.

“Everything is confidential until it goes to public notice,” said Marzieh Shahbazaz, municipal compliance manager for the EPD. “Normally that takes about two months, but we’re trying very hard to expedite it.”

The EPD works with Georgia communities during the drafting of a CO, Shahbazaz said. Rather than charge penalties to cities for infractions of wastewater treatment agreements, the EPD prefers to help establish a schedule with cities to bring them back up to par.

“We have a lot of requirements,” Shahbazaz said. “We know cities, and we know what they’re capable of, financially. But they have to be capable of taking care of their (wastewater treatment) system.

“But we understand the problem, and the budgets, because all of this is so expensive, and it’s coming from people’s taxes in the end, so we try to be reasonable.”

However, enforcement action under the CO does come in the form of fines and penalties, Shahbazaz said.

The City received a CO from the EPD after massive sewage spills during the 2009 flood, but was exempt from penalties due to the State’s declaration of the event as a natural disaster, Shahbazaz said. The City will not be exempt this time.

Before the CO is issued, it will be open to public comment for 30 days. If any comments are received, the CO may be adjusted provided the comments “are reasonable,” Shahbazaz said.

The order that was set aside would have cost the city more than $200,000 in penalties along with additional per day fines for every day the situation continued. The city could be facing far larger fines and even criminal penalties by state law in this CO.

The document should be available to the public before or around the beginning of June for public comment.