Unexpected increase on tap for city sewer rates

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK, News-Telegram Managing Editor

August 6, 2008 - The city of Sulphur Springs is expected to have to raise sewer rates by about 10 percent in the coming budget year to cover an unexpected $130,000 rise in the cost of disposing of sludge from the wastewater treatment plant.

The money to pay for disposing of the sludge -- all the solid waste crud that's left after sewer water has been treated -- usually comes from the fees charged to city water customers' sewer service.

That fee has an automatic increase tied to the Consumer Price Index, which would raise the rates this year about 4.5 percent.

But City Finance Director Peter Karstens said another 4.8 percent will likely have to be tacked on after the company that has handled sludge disposal, Terra Renewal Services in Arkansas, withdrew its bid to renew its contract with the city.

"The comment was made that Hopkins County has too much potential for litigation," explained Craig Vaughn, who oversees the city's water and sewer treatment plants.

Terra Renewal Services already operates one dump site and had applied to the state's environmental agency in December for a permit to operate a new site in the northern part of Hopkins County. A number of citizens, however, banded together to oppose the permit, saying the company's practices pose a threat to the environment. They claimed waste disposal trucks go to dump sites late at night, that the waste creates a noxious smell, that waste was being unloaded even during heavy rains, among other complaints.

Councilman Charles Oxford, who said he has sat in on meetings of the local group opposing Terra Renewal's permit application, told other council members the organization recently retained an attorney to represent them.

"I'm certain that is what he was referring to," Oxford said.

Terra Renewal, whose contract for sludge disposal with the city expired July 31, was one of only two bidders for the service, but City Manager Marc Maxwell said they pulled out last week.

"Terra Renewal Services has withdrawn their bid, saying Hopkins County is too hot a place to do business," Maxwell said.

That left only one bidder, Republic/Malloy Landfill and Sanitation Service in Campbell. But Republic's bid price did not include hauling the sludge to its landfill in Campbell, and the cost of transporting the waste will add about $130,000 more to the disposal cost.

Oxford was asked if the group opposing the permit was aware of the consequences that would accompany their opposition. Oxford responded that there have never been any "negative words" about the city's "contribution to the situation."

Disposal of sludge from the wastewater plant is regulated by the government, Maxwell said, and the waste can only be taken to a site with the appropriate permit.

"The bottom line is we only have one place to take it," Maxwell told council members. "Terra has the only licensed site in Hopkins County, and they have decided not to use it."

Ironically, Maxwell added, the city's sludge waste "is the stuff that doesn't smell."

"You could put industrial waste anywhere," he said, noting the sludge from industrial plants is often the type that emits noxious odors.

"The bottom line is that we're going to pay $130,000 more, and the [sewer] rate payers are going to pay 4.8 percent more beyond the CPI increase," Karstens said.

Oxford asked Maxwell if the city has explored other alternatives to disposing of the sludge. One problem, the city manager, explained, is that the wastewater sludge can contain human pathogens which must be mitigated by some process. Maxwell said a number of process have been tested, such as heating the waste and mixing it with chemicals, but all proved unsuccessful for one reason or another.

Oxford indicated that he knew of a method that he believed would work.

"I'd love to hear about it, because we've tried a whole lot of processes," Maxwell said.

But Maxwell added that, in the long run, some of the alternatives that seemed to be too expensive may not be anymore.

"At $130,000 a year, maybe it is time to look at other options," he said.

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