Waste management

Cost, impact of Swan Lake sewer plant upgrade troubles residents

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 1/13/21

SWAN LAKE, NY — One thing is certain: The Swan Lake sewer treatment plant needs work. But the scope of that work, including proposed additional capacity and a $20 million bill, has sparked …

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Waste management

Cost, impact of Swan Lake sewer plant upgrade troubles residents

Posted

SWAN LAKE, NY — One thing is certain: The Swan Lake sewer treatment plant needs work. But the scope of that work, including proposed additional capacity and a $20 million bill, has sparked concern.

A lawsuit filed by residents has succeeded in temporarily halting the project. Judge Richard McNally, Supreme Court 3rd Judicial District in New York, issued a temporary restraining order on January 8. The order prevents the Town of Liberty from taking action on the upgrade, which had been tabled until February 1 before receiving the judge’s order.

At issue is a 34-year-old facility located a few miles from the Village of Liberty. “It needs to be upgraded first and foremost,” said Town of Liberty Supervisor Frank DeMayo, in an interview conducted before the temporary restraining order. “It’s near the end of its useful life.”

In addition, notes Delaware Engineering, in a report on the project, “The plant uses older, less efficient technologies that are increasingly difficult to maintain due to the inability to obtain replacement parts.”

“Everyone agrees that the sewer needs to be fixed,” Swan Lake resident Michael Edwards, a member of the group behind the lawsuit, said. “But how are you going to fix it? We want this to be done properly.” 

And “you’re doing this during a pandemic” when people have less money, Cora Edwards, of Swan Lake, said. 

DeMayo agreed that upgrades are expensive, but “we’re going to do our best to reduce the impact.” 

The $20 million project, unveiled at a presentation on August 31, would increase capacity from  0.425 million of gallons per day (MGD) to 0.960 MGD. A long list of improvements is planned, from new pipes to a new membrane bioreactor process (MBR) and a building for it. The new process, Delaware Engineering said in its report, would meet stricter effluent limits.

The maximum to be spent is $20 million, and the town is applying for a $5 million grant and looking for others. 

Delaware Engineering estimated the current usage at 365,000 gallons per day (GPD). Approved (but not yet built) development would add 103,000 GPD. Additional “likely development” (based, the firm says, on builder intel) would add 186,000 GPD. This has not been approved by the planning board. 

Reports haven’t shown a project budget yet, but they do outline how the new facility would be paid for. “Unit shares” are used. 

Everyone in the sewer district with a connection pays some part of the operations and maintenance (O&M) cost, based on the amount of water used. (75,000 gallons of water/year equals one unit). Everyone with or without a connection would pay a part of the debt service. 

The town calculates that the new project would cost $981/year/unit for O&M—debt service would cost $656—for a total of $1637 per unit. (The amount for each homeowner would be the percentage of a unit, or of 75,000 gallons of water used.)

This assumes that the town would be able to use zero-percent financing from New York State’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

Fixing the plant, without adding capacity, would cost at least $10 million, the engineering firm said.

Then Edwards asked to see a budget. “No one knows what that’s going to be,” said Michael Edwards. How can you make a decision without knowing what repairs cost? Cora Edwards asked.

More development, meaning more units, would reduce the cost per unit. 

Some of the development, DeMayo said, has already been approved and built, because the evaluation had been started a while ago. The report includes projections for “potential development.” This is simply land that is not unusable for development, like wetlands or slopes would be, he said.

“The engineering company alluded to the fact that taxes would go down,” said Cora Edwards. But again, that seems to be predicated on development. “That’s going to change the way the community looks,” said Michael Edwards. “We have no information about any of these developments.”

Zoning regulates development, DeMayo said.  A land use map provided by Delaware Engineering shows 48 percent of the district devoted to camps and bungalows, 28 percent vacant land, 16 percent residential, and the rest religious, commercial, public service (the sewer treatment plant) and so on. 

So the number of new residences that could be constructed would be limited.

Even so, the Delaware Engineering report argues that more development equals more ratepayers to share the cost burden. 

Meanwhile, there are environmental concerns. 

In the residents’ lawsuit, they allege that the expansion of the wastewater treatment plant will encourage development that could double or triple the number of houses in the sewer district, but the environmental impact of that expansion was not studied, violating state laws, a statement said.

“The town stated there would be no negative impact on traffic, on community character, on the cost of service, roads, the quality of life in Swan Lake,” Cora Edwards said. But there were still questions and concerns that hadn’t been answered satisfactorily. “We’re simply saying that if the town is not going to perform their due diligence, it’s up to concerned citizens.”

Deadlines are driving the situation. One reason for the push to get the project going is that the town’s eligibility for the interest-free Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan expires after December 2, 2021, according to a letter from Sabrina Ty, president of the New York State of Opportunity Environmental Facilities Corporation.

And the expiration of the statute of limitations to challenge a SEQRA review has pushed the Swan Lake residents’ group to file their suit. 

“There’s no alternative,” Michael Edwards said. “It’s not comfortable for us. We tried to avoid it at all costs.”

“I know these folks, we’ve talked,” DeMayo said. “I just hope, before that moves too far, that we can come to a resolution that’s fair to the residents of Swan Lake.”

The grant applications, engineering design, budgeting, permit applications and bidding are all expected to happen this year.

And paperwork for the lawsuit needs to be filed in January; the hearing is scheduled for February 4.

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