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Front Royal cuts ribbon on $45-million in wastewater treatment plant upgrades

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Mayor Tharpe cuts the project ribbon inside – Photos/Roger Bianchini

As the town’s mid-town sewer system was being tested by the torrential downpour that dumped over three-quarters of an inch of rain in about 40 minutes early Monday evening (May 14) Front Royal officials gathered to mark completion of upgrades to the Town’s Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP).

Shaking the rain off of what appeared NOT to be a water-resistant suit, Mayor Hollis Tharpe took the ceremonial ribbon cutting honors – moved indoors at the WWTP to prevent further drenching of those present to mark the occasion.

In addition to town officials, staff, WWTP personnel, a member of the Warren County Board of Supervisors (which contributed $2.5 million to the project) and one local reporter who braved the deluge to attend (there was food), also on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony were representatives of construction company Adams-Robinson Enterprises of Dayton, Ohio and project engineer GHD of Bowie, Maryland.

Town officials, staff and project representatives mingle after the ribbon cutting

Great minds think alike, Mr. Mayor – FOOD …

Commenting on completion of the $45-million in upgrades Town Manager Joe Waltz noted that construction had been underway for three-years, but that the project had been on the table for about a decade.

“This $45-million plant will be able to treat 5.3 million gallons of sewage each day removing nitrogen and phosphorus to improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.  The project was funded with an approximate $12-million grant from the DEQ with the remaining funds through a zero-interest loan through the Virginia Resource Authority,” Waltz observed.

The Front Royal Town Council approved funding of the project on December 8, 2014, as final deadlines on beginning work were looming after four years of discussion of how to meet state and federal Chesapeake Bay Act mandates.

As 2015 approached the town government faced getting down to business on the upgrades designed to clean up waterways in the Chesapeake Bay watershed or face penalties.  The Shenandoah River from which the Town takes and redeposits its central water supply is one of those waterways feeding into the bay.

The mandated upgrades to municipal wastewater treatment facilities were part of a state and federal effort to protect the Chesapeake Bay’s annual multi-million-dollar fishing and seafood industry from increasing pollution threatening the bay’s aquatic life.

A shot of work underway as the upgraded WWTP takes shape

A March 2015 photo of the WWTP prior to the beginning of work

Following the ribbon cutting Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt expressed concern to this reporter that the town government would find itself in a similar position to that of 2014 in another three years or so.  That is due to the absence of upgrades that deal with the introduction of certain pharmaceutical pollutants into wastewater.

Tewalt expressed frustration with both the state DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) and federal EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) for the failure to include the upgrades in the just-completed project.  However, referencing research this reporter did in 2014, the absence of the pharmaceutical aspect to the town WWTP upgrades faced a number of variables.

During discussion of the December 8, 2014 approval of a bond issue of up to $50 million to cover the costs of the project, then-Councilman Darryl Funk called inclusion of the pharmaceutical aspect to the upgrades “cost prohibitive”.

To Tewalt’s point it was also observed that there was ongoing discussion at the EPA about whether the pharmaceutical cleansing aspect should be included in wastewater or water plant upgrades.  However, whether that discussion originated inside the EPA or with outside interests lobbying for pharmaceutical or other corporate interests was unclear.  Prior to the start of the WWTP project, the Town had previously spent about $6-million on upgrades to its water plant.

As part of its late 2014 decision on financing the project the town accepted the low bid of $44,471,000 from Adams-Robinson for the construction project.  Contingencies ($2.2 million) and bond counsel costs ($20,000) raised the potential project cost to $46,694,550.

Responding to questions at the time, then-Town Finance Director Kim Gilkey-Breeden told council the annual bond payments would be a little under $1 million, with a 20-year payoff ending in 2037.

When the upgrade mandate first came to the Town’s attention in 2011 projected costs were in the $35 million dollar range.  However, the fact the town was able to secure the interest fee loan through Virginia Resource Authority and $12-million in DEQ grant funding may have helped neutralize rising costs over the delay in starting the long-mandated improvements – OR that funding assistance might have been available from the start and the delay actually did cost the town’s taxpayers $10-million.

Contacted about the above costs and funding variables, current Town Finance Director B. J. Wilson verified the 2037 bond payoff date; but elaborated that the Town has two annual payments of $984,440 – so the annual debt service is just under $2 million a year, or $1,968,880 to be precise.

As for the 2011 or so availability of Virginia Resource Authority interest free loans or DEQ grant funding, Wilson was unable to access a time machine to make such a call.

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