At the March 26 Legislative Meeting, Council members Hodge, Bowlesby and McCarthy voted in favor of the Consent Order timeline which was based on the assumption County Government would be introducing the Membrane Bio Reactor (MBR) System into our current system at Seneca Point (NEWWTP). However, given the information I have been supplied by Director Flanigan and Principal Planner, Tony DiGiacomo, I cannot support the MBR System at this time. At the time of the vote, President Hodge acknowledged DPW needed to provide the information of an analysis to justify this costly investment and that we were not obligated to use the MBR system by adopting this consent order. Time will tell if he was sincere in pursuing the cost and process analysis. To implement this system it will cost $40 million to get back to the same capacity we currently have - 2 mgd. How was this project permitted to move forward?
The impetus for making this costly investment is the MDE (Maryland Department of the Environment) requirement for this plant to go from BNR (Bio Nutrient Removal) to ENR (Enhanced Nutrient Removal). MDE only funds upgrades to ENR and not for expanding capacity. DPW hired a consultant (GHD) to research how much it would cost for the Seneca Point to go to ENR and their estimate was $10.9 million to use a denitrification system. This is the amount that MDE agreed to fund Cecil County and DPW Director proposed we instead use the $10.9 million as a down payment on a system that allows us to become ENR compliant but would also allow Seneca Point to increase capacity up to 10 mgd on the current foot print without having to purchase additional property. While the MBR System does allow for additional expansion, it does so at a very expensive price ($40 million) with no additional capacity for that down payment. To expand to 4.0 mgd, the cost will be an additional $29.5 million.
What other options are available?
We can become ENR compliant with the conventional ENR Bioreactor with denitrification filter at the current design capacity of 2 mgd approved and fully funded by MDE. The $10.9 million of the Bay Restoration Grant Funding was assessed by the work of our consultant in accordance with MDE direction which researched the most inexpensive method for our plant to go to ENR.
How long before we will use the current capacity of 2 mgd? The population growth has been reduced from previous projections according to Principal Planner, Tony DiGiacomo. “For the year 2030, based upon WILMAPCO Traffic Analysis Zone (TAZ) projections and reduced by a coefficient of -0.0558 to take into account the latest, reduced MDP control total, I came up with the following population and household projections for the Seneca Point service area: Pop: 18,237, and HH: 6,706.”
Assuming that the flow at Seneca Point increases from the present day 1 MGD to 2 MGD between now and 2030, this would represent a growth rate of 4.2% per year. The economy, in general, is expected to grow around 2% in the future, according to many economists. So a growth rate of 4.2% for the population would be estimated on the high side.
Currently our system has 4,370 active sewer customers. Averaged at 100 gpd/per person or 225 gpd/per household we should arrive at about 1 mgd current capacity. Based on the last 18 years of growth at the North East Waste Water Treatment Plant, the projected flows for the years 2030 and 2035 would fall between 1.6 and 2.0 mgd assuming the old growth projection. But based on the updated population projections for 2030, the flow projections, I believe, fall between 1.5 and 1.8 mgd.
Is there a cheaper, alternative science to the Membrane Bio Reactor? One option that is currently being used in Carroll and Washington County, the Biomag System. The cost on average is about 1/2 of the MBR. While it was relatively new 3-4 years ago, Siemens has purchased the technology due to its promising results. The Biomag capital costs are significantly lower than MBR and can also expand their capacity on the current footprint.
Because waste water treatment science is evolving, there very well could be a cheaper alternative than the MBR solution if we wait. What have we lost in the meantime? Absolutely nothing. We are not required to finance the additional $30 million (which only brings us back to 2 mgd capacity), it appears we have ample capacity up until at least 2030 to 2035, and we have kept our options open. We may find Meadowview will require increased capacity or upgrades before Seneca Point. Also, imagine we instead invested the $30 million into closing up the infrastructure gaps on the growth corridor to attract growth. Wasn't that supposed to be our priority in the first place? .
To get a more accurate count of capacity at Seneca Point, we need to know the policy for reserving space at the treatment plant. I requested this clarification from Director Flanigan on February 4 asking if already issued sewer allocations have a 2 - year “shelf life”? I have also asked how long in his estimation do we have before we reach 2 mgd capacity? To date, he has not responded. Until I have answers to these questions, I don’t feel confident in moving forward or feel it’s fair to put the burden on this system on the users, new customers and tax payers since we‘ll probably have to finance the system with a long term bond.
I would propose that we conduct a full scale pilot study to assess the viable options and then provide a cost analysis on capital costs as well as the operation and maintenance costs for each option. It seems to me this multi million dollar decision to commit to the BMR System should have rose beyond the staff and administration. But we still have time to gather the information to make an informed decision.
I wanted to point out that while I'm not an expert on Waste Water Treatment Plants, I was able to gather the information from the experts after investing a lot of time and research. Because I am responsible for making informed votes, the Inhouse Auditor could make my job easier and potentially save the county more money than the position would cost.