Purdy sewer dispute leads to state abatement order

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A long-expected abatement order on the city of Purdy's sewer operation has been issued by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

City officials have agreed to take necessary steps, though the cost and the means to achieve it are only now taking shape.

"This is kind of the beginning of the process," said Mayor Steve Roden. "The state says, 'We know you are in violation. You know it. You need to proceed in getting it fixed.'"

Purdy's sewer system has provided a source of dispute with state officials since shortly after it opened in 1991. As early as 1995, DNR officials began voicing concerns about the potential collapse of the east wastewater lagoon due to a high possibility of a sinkhole. A wastewater lagoon had collapsed around Cabool in the 1960s, causing widespread pollution of the water table.

Evidence of the sinkhole at the Purdy site was never confirmed and city officials shrugged off efforts to put a concrete basin under the lagoon.

Once the concern surfaced, DNR officials never again warmed up to Purdy's innovative system, similar to the one in Freistatt. The process calls for filtering the effluent by spraying it onto an irrigation field and letting the earth act as a filter as moisture sinks back into the water table. Effluent from the east lagoon may never have met DNR standards for biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids. One test well consistently measured higher than acceptable nitrate levels.

The next round began in 2008, when DNR directed the city to correct the leaking west lagoon. A liner was installed and a pump system to transfer all of the contents from the west lagoon to the east lagoon.

The breaking point came in 2009, when DNR issued a new wastewater permit to the city with stricter standards for a losing stream. DNR called for a 20 percent reduction in the amount of water that could leave the lagoon. City officials proposed increasing the irrigation field by connecting two adjacent properties to the system with more than two miles of 10 to 14-inch pipes.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed $2.5 million bond issue in June 2010. City officials returned to talks with DNR through its engineers at Allgeier, Martin and Associates, who designed the lagoon system originally, and through attorneys.

"They've been patient," Roden said. "It's gotten to the point where we have to move on."

The city has gained time by seeking to reduce the inflow and infiltration (I and I) of storm water into the lagoon through leaking manholes and sewer lines. Roden said the city has two more years on its ongoing contract with Ace Pipe Cleaning that has cut additional storm water from reaching the lagoon. On several occasions, the lagoon has overflowed during very rainy periods.

"We need a facilities plan," Roden said. "We've found out some things DNR won't allow. We cannot modify the lagoon. I think they want us to get away from sprinkling. I suspect we will have to go to a mechanical system. We're open to other approaches, but we will have to by DNR's blessing."

Allgeier, Martin and Associates will complete a facilities plan and present three approaches for the city council to consider. Roden said DNR will have to approve the plan before work can start.

Estimates on building a mechanical system run from $6 million to $7 million. City officials and residents have complained at length that the community cannot afford such a system, especially when it only has a life expectancy of 20 years.

Since 2010, council members have gradually increased sewer rates from a minimum of $15 a month to nearly $40 a month for an average user. Money not needed for daily operations has been set aside for system improvements. Some has already gone into engineering costs for planning a solution.

Under federal standards, 2 percent of the median family income is expected to go for sewer costs. According to City Clerk Debbie Redshaw, city rates remain about $7 a month under that amount, based on income levels documented by the federal census. Until sewer rates hit the federal standard, the city will not qualify for government grants to make improvements.

Council members have raised rates. Roden said aldermen still would rather phase in the final increase than raise rates all at once.

At the May council meeting, aldermen hired Bacorn Enterprises to seek a Community Development Block Grant for the system upgrade. Roden said the council has also contacted Bruce Hively with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, seeking assistance. Rural Development awarded both grant money and a long-term loan to the village of Freistatt to make water system upgrades. Roden said the city is also exploring placing funds in the State Revolving Fund, as Monett did with bond money to build the new water treatment plant.

The possibility remains that the city council may again ask residents to vote on a bond issue later this year. Roden said the timing of a vote would depend on how quickly the engineers and DNR shape a solution.

The abatement order stipulated that if the city did not act, DNR would impose penalties for the days during which the city operates in violation of its sewer permit. The order would fine the city $100 a day for the first 30 days, $250 a day for the second and third months in violation, and $500 a day for violations beyond the 90th day.

Roden stressed the penalties apply if the city refuses to cooperate. Aldermen approved Roden signing the abatement order on consent promptly to again show the city's good faith.

Attorneys for the city have negotiated with DNR for months. As a result, the abatement order contained an affordability finding. Roden said the clause will not free the city of liability in light of the frequent criticism that the city cannot afford to build or operate the kind of treatment system proposed. However, DNR agreed to prepare an "affordability finding" in reviewing the submitted facilities plan. Roden viewed the agreement as a positive development.

"We're kind of behind the eight-ball," Roden said. "We are going to do something. We will try to get anything we can and go everywhere we can to find the cheapest bucks. We know this is going to be expensive."

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