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Sewage options deserve a close look

St. Petersburg has its $50 million pier, Hernando County its $150 million sewage treatment project.

True, that latter number is an old one, and the cost of the countywide plan to close old sewage treatment plants and send all of the flow to larger, newer facilities is likely to be trimmed down.

But if a city the size of St. Petersburg is tying itself into knots about the cost of a new pier, we should at least pay attention to bigger amounts to be spent by our smaller community.

And, even though sewage isn't the most thrilling topic, we should insist that it be hashed out in public.

Instead, word from the mountaintop came down to the county Utilities Department last month: Business leaders didn't like it that one part of the sewage treatment plan — closing the aging, foul-smelling Spring Hill plant and pumping its share of sewage to a greatly expanded facility near the Brooksville-Tampa Regional Airport — would cost more than $40 million.

So the county put the brakes on the project and asked Cliff Manuel of Coastal Engineering Associates to start looking at cheaper options.

It's a big decision. And even if it turns out to be the right one, here are a few things county commissioners might have considered before making it:

• We've already invested a lot in what's now called the "old" plan — more than $5 million in the design by engineering firm Cardno TBE for the expansion of the airport plant, and $2.8 million to lay nearly half of the pipe needed to redirect flow there from the Spring Hill plant on Osowaw Boulevard.

• The "old" plan isn't that old. When commissioners briefly discussed it at a workshop last month, it sounded as though the county had been charging ahead on a design written for a much faster-growing county during the peak of the housing boom. In fact, the Utilities Department didn't commit to the idea of closing the Spring Hill plant until 2008. The commission didn't approve the rate increase to expand the county's sewage system until 2009. And in a $164,000 report finished less than a year ago, Coastal reviewed the expansion proposal and concluded that "completion of the airport facility improvements will be critical to plans for closing the Spring Hill" plant.

• Keeping the Spring Hill plant open — one option mentioned at the workshop last month — won't be cheap. A corroded, steel-walled section of the plant dates to the 1960s and definitely must be removed. The plant needs a new master lift station and, as is obvious to anyone who has been near the place, a new odor control system. And because workers have long assumed that the plant would be closed, maintenance has been neglected to the point that catwalks have collapsed into tanks of sewage. The county now says these repairs will cost about $15 million. Manuel said it could probably eke out a few more years of use for considerably less than that. But the county has previously estimated repairs there would cost as much as $25 million.

• The county pretty much has to expand the airport plant. It now receives nearly 750,000 gallons a day, and with ongoing minor improvements, the plant will soon be able to handle 1 million gallons a day. But expected population growth alone will increase the flow to the airport by another 1.3 million gallons a day by 2020, according to Coastal's 2012 report. The airport is also the obvious destination for 347,000 gallons from a lift station near the Seven Hills subdivision. Because this now goes to Spring Hill in an undersized pipe, arriving in foul condition, it's one of the main sources of that plant's smell. Finally, the county needs to upgrade the airport plant if it hopes to sell highly treated wastewater to nearby subdivisions for irrigation.

These are all facts that support the need for the old plan. Here are some that suggest it might be a bit too ambitious:

• What's called an expansion of the airport plant really isn't an expansion at all. The existing airport plant — which was just completed in the late 1990s — will be mothballed, partly because it's a type that is difficult to convert for reuse. It will be replaced by an entirely new plant, the main features of which — two side-by-side aeration tanks — will be able to handle a total of 6 million gallons of sewage per day.

• Other parts of the new plant have less capacity than that, and one key part of the process a lot less. There are no immediate plans to expand the infiltration ponds — the ones that let the effluent seep back into the aquifer — beyond 3 million gallons per day.

• Finally, the county system as a whole isn't exactly bursting at the seams. And the Glen plant in northwestern Hernando — recently expanded to 3 million gallons — is now handling only 17 percent that much sewage.

So does it make sense to see if we really need both of those tanks at the airport plant? Should the county look at sending some of the flow from Spring Hill to the underused Glen?

Sure. And those are likely to be options when this all comes back before the commission in March.

Any chance the county will just stick to the old plan?

I doubt it. That decision — the big one — has already been made.

Sewage options deserve a close look 01/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 7:11pm]

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