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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Ground “broken” for sewage treatment plant

One of the largest public works projects in Spokane County history -- one that has been nearly 30 years in the making -- got its official start Thursday as local officials held a dirt turner for the $140 million wastewater treatment facility.

For those unfamiliar with such events, a dirt turner is news media terminology for a standard arrow in the public officials' quiver of events. A bunch of people who have little or no business on a construction site go out to a piece of land that's been cleared for some big construction project, stand around near heavy equipment, and at the appropriate time stick shovels in the ground and hoist up what is often a pitiful amount of earth to signal the beginning of the project.

Standing on land off Freya Street once occupied by stockyards -- any allusion to the by-product of so many cows standing around for so many years is strictly the fault of the county here -- elected and appointed government leaders from the county, the city of Spokane Valley and the city of Spokane stuck shovels into the pre-softened soil and complimented each other for their cooperation.

Really. They were extremely nice to each other. Dirt turners bring out the best in public officials.

City of Spokane Public Works Director Dave Mandyke and Administrator Ted Danek looked the least comfortable, but that probably had nothing to do with the bon mots flowing freely. Rather, they were about the only ones in dark sport coats or suits, and ties, and it was a fairly warm day.

And while all dirt turners tend to look alike in most respects, each has its own special flair. In this case, it was the shovels painted purple to signify the treatment plant’s “purple pipe”, an industry term for a system that distributes reclaimed water to irrigate parks and playgrounds and for industrial use.

Usually the shovels are painted gold or silver, apparently to signify the fact that tons of money is about to be poured into the project.

Real work on the treatment facility will begin this summer, and the 8 million gallon per day plant is expected to open in 2012, which is just slightly ahead of the projection for the county’s current allotment to the existing wastewater treatment plant to hit capacity in 2013. Reaching capacity for the existing facility could lead to a state-imposed building moratorium, County Commissioner Todd Mielke said.

The county began studying a wastewater plant as early as 1979. In the last two years, as the county neared a decision on a facility, it hit some additional stumbling blocks. The price soared, from an estimated $73.4 million in 2004 to $140 million for the final contract signed with CH2M HILL in January.

The county does not yet know what the final standards will be for treated water discharged into the Spokane River. Some critics said the county should be sure about the discharge requirements before signing a contract for the facility.

County commissioners also haven’t decided how much sewer rates will go up, and when they will go up, to pay for the new plant and other improvements to the sewage system.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.