Spokane County is on the verge of signing what’s believed to be its biggest contract ever to build a wastewater treatment plant, even though no one knows yet whether environmental regulators will allow any of the treated sewage to be discharged into the Spokane River.
The last step on the proposal comes Tuesday when the county holds a public hearing to allow residents to comment on the $170 million contract with engineering, construction and operations firm CH2M HILL. The plan calls for the facility to be built on 20 acres on the old stockyards at Freya Street and Boone Avenue.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who has spearheaded the project, said the county is compelled to move forward with construction of the plant because it has about four years’ worth of its allotted capacity at Spokane’s existing wastewater treatment plant. Any delays in construction of the county’s plant could force officials to place a moratorium on all commercial and housing development, he said.
“The bigger message is, you are basically hanging a sign on the door that says this community is closed for expansion for future residents until further notice,” Mielke said. “I think that would be devastating to the businesses in our community and their ability to expand.”
But Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the public interest law firm Center for Justice, said the county should not be putting that much public money at risk when it doesn’t yet know if it can lawfully discharge the treated water into the Spokane River.
State and federal officials announced in September that new regulations for discharge permits into the river would take another year to formulate after the Environmental Protection Agency said it erred when calculating phosphorus limits for Idaho dischargers.
Those EPA officials had been assuming that Idaho dischargers would contribute such small amounts of phosphorus to the river that they would be virtually undetectable at the state line. But later calculations showed that the combined levels of phosphorus from Idaho and Washington dischargers would be too high to protect the water quality of Long Lake, where trout struggle to find cold, oxygenated water during summer months.
Eichstaedt represents the Sierra Club, which sent a letter to county commissioners with several concerns about the proposed technology and design of the planned wastewater facility.
“One of the other points of that letter is that legally, it’s questionable whether the county will ever get a permit to discharge,” Eichstaedt said. “We think it’s pretty irresponsible to sign a contract for a couple-hundred-million-dollar project for a wastewater treatment plant before you know that you’ll ever get to open it.”
Mielke countered that regardless of whether the county discharges in the river or is forced to pump the treated water to land application sites, it still will need the plant to process the wastewater.
“You have two parts to this dilemma. One is your treatment and the other is your discharge,” he said. “Again, we don’t believe the need for the treatment plant changes based on where you discharge.”
The delay in discharge permits has had other ripple effects. The county has stopped forcing the estimated 9,000 septic tank users in Spokane Valley to hook up to the sewer. Those conversions, seen as key to protecting the aquifer that provides the region’s drinking water, are now voluntary, said Bruce Rawls, the county’s utilities director.
He explained that the county is allowed to generate 10 million gallons of the 44 million gallons of wastewater that flow per day into Spokane’s wastewater plant. Right now, the county is using about 8.3 million gallons of that capacity.
Since the average home adds about 180 gallons a day, the system only has room for about 9,000 new homes. However, several large businesses could take up more of the remaining capacity, Rawls said.
“If we get close to capacity, we may not allow (septic tank users) to connect unless their septic tank fails,” he said. “But that’s a policy decision, and we haven’t made that decision yet.”
Rawls offered a scenario that could complicate the situation even further. “Let’s say an industry came into town and says, ‘We want 1 million gallons of wastewater capacity a day to put in this plant and we are going to bring 500 jobs,’ ” he said. “Can you imagine what the community would say if I said we don’t have the capacity and those jobs have to go to Boise?”
Eichstaedt said he believes the county is grossly overestimating the growth potential of the area given the current economic climate.
“Part of this (capacity) problem is of their own making,” Eichstaedt said of county officials. “Our county commissioners have spent a lot of time expanding the growth boundary to places like Five Mile Prairie … instead of encouraging growth where we already have services.”
Eichstaedt also questions the nature of the proposed contract with CH2M HILL. Under most county contracts, officials hire an engineering firm to design a facility, then put the construction up for bid; county staff operate the finished facility. Under the wastewater proposal, CH2M HILL is being hired to design, build and operate the facility.
“Essentially, we are turning over the keys for this wastewater plant to that private corporation,” Eichstaedt said. “They are going to be looking for ways to maximize their profit. There are examples in Indianapolis and Atlanta where water quality has suffered and pricing has suffered as a result of these kinds of contracts.”
But Rawls, who worked 17 years for CH2M HILL before joining the county 14 years ago, and Mielke both defended the 20-year contract arrangement.
“We looked at a variety of delivery alternatives,” said Rawls, who sat on the seven-member selection committee. “We recommended design, build and operate. It would save us a substantial amount of money and delivery of time and reduce the risk to Spokane County that is normally associated with splitting up the disciplines.”
For example, if the contractor errs in its design or construction of the plant, they have no one else to blame, he said.
Mielke said the county retains the right to go with another operator or take over the operations of the facility in the future.
“The analysis showed that over the long term, this resulted in lower costs to taxpayers in the Spokane County region than separating all these phases,” he said.
Rawls said he doesn’t believe it was a conflict to serve on the selection committee that chose his former employer.
“I am a professional engineer. I spent over 30 years in this industry. I have no allegiance to CH2M HILL,” he said.
Mielke said he has no problems with Rawls’ involvement.
“I guess my response is, people who deal in public works tend to flow in and out of public and private employment,” Mielke said. “If you are knowledgeable to the degree that you are an expert in the field, chances are you will be involved in some of the bigger projects.”
Former county commissioner John Roskelley said he knows Rawls to be a man of his word.
“I know for a fact that Bruce would not bend even if he was the brother-in-law of the guy who owns it. Of all the county employees, I had a lot of trust in Bruce Rawls,” Roskelley said. “But it would have been better for him to stay off” the selection committee.
Regardless of the contract, one thing is certain: County rate payers will see a hike, Rawls said.
Last year, when the construction cost was estimated at $106 million, residential sewer rates were expected to rise to $39.48 in 2013.
Now, that cost has ballooned to $170 million. And that’s not counting another estimated $40 million it would cost to pipe the treated water to Saltese Flats as part of a potential wetlands restoration project in Spokane Valley.
“It’s pretty easy to deduce it will cost more than a year ago,” Rawls said of the $39.48 figure. “But we haven’t done the new rate analysis. We hope to have that done by March.”
Despite the complexities of the project, no one has the luxury to wait; projections show the county running out of sewer capacity by 2013, Mielke said.
“We are already under the gun,” he said. “This whole issue should be well under way in 2009 to meet this 2013 deadline. Let’s get our treatment technology in place. When the pipe comes out of the treatment plant, where does it go? That’s the issue that is not clear.”