Spokane County commissioners heard Tuesday night from a diverse crowd of people who mostly had concerns about entering a $170 million contract to build a wastewater treatment plant before getting necessary discharge permits.
Commissioner Todd Mielke said earlier Tuesday that he had hoped to approve the contract with CH2M Hill to design, build and operate the facility. But he learned from a county attorney that the county needs to wait for more comment from state officials before making a decision.
Residents can mail in comments until 5 p.m. Dec. 1. County leaders could then hold final deliberations on the contract at a public hearing Dec. 16, although that date is not firm, Mielke said.
“It’s time to move forward and get it done now,” county utilities director Bruce Rawls said.
However, Rawls and other county leaders don’t know whether they will be able to discharge the treated water into the Spokane River. Several residents focused their comments on that problem.
“It seems hard to me to believe that the county wants to go ahead and build $170 million worth of infrastructure when you don’t know whether or not you can even discharge,” Spokane Valley resident Howard Herman said. Tony Lazanis, also of Spokane Valley, said he and his neighbors will face higher user fees to pay for the plant. “You should look to the people you represent: the ratepayers,” Lazanis said. “I hope you don’t build it until you have the right permits.”
The plan calls for the facility to be built on 20 acres on the old stockyards at Freya Street and Boone Avenue.
Rawls said the process, which started nine years ago, should be well under construction in 2009. Projections show the county running out of its allotted capacity at Spokane’s wastewater facility in 2013. If construction of the county plant is delayed, it could force county leaders to stop all commercial and residential growth in the county.
The plant would cost about $142 million to build. However, the county expects to spend another $30 million on pipes and other infrastructure. And the plant would cost about $6.8 million to operate each year.
The issue became more complicated when 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 in the summer.
Rawls said the plant is needed even if the state and federal regulators do not allow county officials to discharge the treated water into the river. “This treatment plant makes a giant step forward to providing the capacity that we need,” he said.
The city is permitted to discharge 44 million gallons of wastewater a day. The county owns 10 million gallons of that capacity and now pumps about 8.3 million gallons into the system.
The city has room to expand to about 55 million gallons a day. If the county adds a plant that can handle 8 million gallons, the combined capacity would be enough to meet the community’s needs for 50 years, Rawls said.
And in the worst-case scenario, the county could mothball the new plant or pay a termination fee to CH2M Hill to break the contract, said Rawls, who worked 17 years with CH2M Hill before coming to the county 14 years ago.
Former Spokane City Councilman Rob Higgins, who did not attend the hearing Tuesday, questions whether the county has done enough to work with city leaders to develop a regional wastewater facility.
“We are de facto one municipality, really,” Higgins said. “We don’t need to have all these different utilities around. We should be coming together and dealing with these issues on a regional basis.”
Matt Ewers, who spoke on behalf of business interests, urged the commission to sign the contract.
But Rachael Paschal Osborn, speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, argued that the county is forging ahead with only advice from county staff and those who would profit from the contract. “The large financial repercussion is to the residents who ultimately who will have to pay for this plant,” she said.