SIDNEY — A project that’s been in the works for many years finally got underway Friday morning with the groundbreaking for wastewater treatment plant expansion.
“With the passage of the current month, I will have been in office eight years,” Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst said in his remarks at the groundbreaking. “Nearly that entire time, the city has been negotiating with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency over the expansion of the wastewater treatment plant.”
Barhorst thanked state Sen. Keith Faber (who was unable to attend the event) for his role in facilitating negotiations between the EPA and the city of Sidney. Barhorst recalled that during the Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Legislative Breakfast in 2012, Faber “finally took notice of our situation — due in no small part to a question posed by then-Botkins Village Administrator Jesse Kent — who expressed concern about the cost of our project and how villages the size of Botkins would ever be able to afford such costly improvements.
“On his way out of the door that morning, Sen. Faber handed me a note, written on part of a placemat, guaranteeing me a meeting with then-Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally. Despite the Senate president’s guarantee, no meeting was ever scheduled due to Mr. Nally’s refusal to meet.”
City officials did have a long conference call with Nally. Barhorst, paraphrasing Nally, said the director “told those gathered around the conference table that afternoon that anything that was currently part of the wastewater treatment plant that was more than five years old had outlived its useful life, and should be replaced. ‘You certainly wouldn’t drive a five-year old car, would you?’ he asked me. When I told him that I did, his response was immediate: ‘You need to replace it right away — it could break down!’ ”
Early in 2014, Gov. John Kasich fired Nally. “He was replaced by Craig Butler, and almost immediately, things began to change,” Barhorst said. Shortly after that, City Manger Mark Cundiff and the mayor were sitting at the conference table in the State Senate President’s Office, meeting with Butler and a contingent from his office. The improvements, originally estimated to cost more than $70 million and later reduced to $35 million, were further reduced to $12.5 million, Barhorst said, “provided in Director Butler’s words, I was willing to be the ‘tip of the spear’ if the United States EPA determined that what it was the city of Sidney was doing was in violation of their regulations. It was some degree of comfort when he assured me that OEPA’s legal department would represent us if that happened.”
Barhorst said he continues “to be astonished by the fact that the original $70 million worth of improvements were mandated despite the fact that the city of Sidney has an annual operating permit issued by the EPA which, in recent years, we have never violated.”
The wastewater treatment plant discharges into the Great Miami River. A separate branch of the EPA has designated the Great Miami River as it flows through Sidney “ ‘an exceptional warm-water habitat,’ hardly an indication that this plant needs to be completely rebuilt,” Barhorst said.
The improvements will guarantee that the water discharged into the river is free of E. coli bacteria. They also will provide a backup generator that will allow the full treatment of effluent, “eliminating bypass discharges that currently meet our discharge permit standards, but seem to really bother some folks at the United States EPA,” Barhorst said.
To pay for the plant expansion and system improvements, the city applied for and received approval from the Ohio EPA for a 20-year loan from its Water Pollution Control Loan Fund (WPCLF). The $9.5 million loan has a guaranteed 2.3 percent interest rate with repayment set to begin in 2018, Barhorst said.
Phase two of the planned expansion, projected for 2018, will require a debt issuance of an additional $5.5 million. The city staff will reapply to the WPCLF for this debt issuance “in hopes of obtaining equally favorable rates and repayment terms. This is good news for our consumers, who will soon see their first rate decrease made possible by the reduced scope of this project, favorable debt repayment terms, and favorable project bids,” Barhorst said.
This is also good news for industrial customers, Barhorst said. Per capita, Sidney has the highest number of industrial jobs of any city in Ohio. The plant receives 45 percent of its flow and 65 percent of its loading capacity from industrial customers. Based on flow, the plant handles sewage that would be produced by a city of 52,700 people. Based upon loading, the plant handles wastewater that would be produced by a city of 34,515 people. According to the last census, Sidney has an actual population of 21,229. Sidney’s Industrial Pretreatment Program is the fourth largest in southwest Ohio, after Cincinnati, Butler County, and Dayton.
Currently designed to handle an average capacity of 7 million gallons per day (MGD), the plant averaged 5.27 MGD in 2013, Barhorst said. That compared to 4.66 MGD the previous year. This expansion will increase the plant’s capacity to 16 MGD.
Barhorst also noted that Sidney’s plant operates much more efficiently than other similar-sized plants. Most wastewater treatment plants that are sized to handle 5-7 MGD have 11 to 13 full-time employees. Sidney’s plant has six full-time staff members. This is the result of extensive automation, and a well-trained and dedicated staff that monitors the system 24 hours a day, he said.
In closing, Barhorst said he wanted to publicly thank a couple of people who were not at the event: “Former City Manager Steve Stilwell and former Utilities Director Chris Clark truly assisted me in getting up to speed when I first came into office and were of invaluable counsel as we continued to battle Ohio EPA so that we could construct an addition to this plant that would meet the needs of both our residents and industrial consumers well into the future, and not bankrupt the city in the process. Although they have both moved on to serve other communities, this community will always owe them both a debt of gratitude.”