The wastewater plant in Exmore has just about reached the end of its usefulness. It may be failing. At one time, Exmore was 3rd on DEQ’s list of priorities for funding so the town (and county) could replace the wastewater infrastructure. The tables turned when the town was pushed down the list due to a Consent Order (2008) to repair the Waste Water Treatment Plant.
In the background, there has been a subtle push to get Exmore to sign onto the Hampton Roads Sanitation District ( HRSD). The DEQ has since bumped up HRSD’s grant application, placing it as a priority ahead of Exmore’s.
The HRSD is also under a consent order for 2.75 billion dollars stemming from issues in Chesapeake.
Of note, in Chesapeake water bills from the HRSD spiked for an unknown reason. For some, an average bill of $190 jumped to $235 a month. The HRSD raised rates by as much as 9% without alerting citizens that it was on the way.
All effluent from Nassawadox and Exmore, if they join HRSD will go to the Onancock Creek.
Whether joining the HRSD is a good fit for Exmore is still an open question. Exmore citizen Ken Dufty told the Mirror that he has been attempting to gather more information, and has supplied questions and answers that have been presented to the HRSD:
#1. Questions about Discharge of Treated Wastewater Upon information and belief, HRSD operates 9 major treatment plants on the mainland of Virginia and several smaller plants within its service area that serves approximately 1.7 million customers. According to the Federal Consent Order that HRSD is currently under regarding SSO’s it is stated that HRSD serves an area of “3,100 miles and a population of approximately 1.6 million people and operates over 500 miles of interceptor pipes discharging to the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay, the James and Elizabeth Rivers and other waters of the United States.” [Page 1 Consent Decree in the matter of the United States of America and Commonwealth of Virginia, Plaintiffs v. Hampton Roads Sanitation District, Defendant]. Question: Could you please provide the name of the receiving body of water for the plants that discharge treated wastewater to surface water (creeks, streams, rivers, the Atlantic, the Bay,etc) and provide the names of those that do not discharge to surface water but rather discharge to land via mass drain fields or other similar technology allowing direct release of treated wastewater to land. We would be most appreciative if you could also provide the volume of treated wastewater that is released either to land or surface water from each respective plant that HRSD manages and/or operates. Our understanding is that the total wastewater that HRSD releases to the environment is approximately 240 million gallons each day. This information has been requested by several citizens who are very active in the proceedings of the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission’s ESVA Groundwater Committee, expressing concern that collecting treated wastewater that currently is discharged to land such as within the Exmore service area and discharging that waste to the Occohannock Creek or the Chesapeake Bay may have a deleterious impact on our sole source aquifer, as the water cycle that currently supports the eventual recharge of our shallow Columbia Aquifer (and therefore the underlying Yorktown Eastover aquifer) will be broken if we export that resource for discharge to the Bay, creeks, streams, or the Atlantic Ocean.
HRSD operates treatment plants with permits to discharge to several waterways. The Williamsburg, James River, Boat Harbor and Nansemond plants all discharge into the James River. West Point and York River plants discharge to the York River, the Chesapeake Elizabeth plant discharges into the mouth of the Bay near Little Creek (DEQ classifies this as part of the James River). The Army Base and Virginia Initiative plants discharge into the Elizabeth River, and the Atlantic Treatment Plant discharges into the Atlantic Ocean. The Town of Surry treatment Plant discharges to Dark Swamp and the County of Surry Plant discharges to Hazel Swamp. Central Middlesex discharges to Urbanna Creek, King William to Moncuin Creek (for any effluent not reused by Purina at the near-by cat litter plant) and Urbanna Plant discharges into the Urbanna Creek. We have three facilities that do not discharge to surface waters: Lawnes Point is currently handled by hauling to Nansemond, but it is permitted to discharge to Lawnes Creek. Mt Olive in King William County is also only hauled at this time but is permitted to discharge to Mallory Creek. We have one mass drain field in the Mount Olive community in King William. Please see attached monthly summary for flows and water quality for each plant.
#2.Commission Meetings…Public Involvement Potential A)How often does the HRSD Commission meet, and are those meetings held at any other venue than 1434 Air Rail Avenue in Virginia Beach, Virginia? Is public comment allowed both before and after the final Commission deliberations and decision-making and can residents ask questions during the Commission’s deliberation of agenda items? Several of our researchers have independently discovered that there is very little public comment and/or involvement in Commission meetings. This lack of public comment and involvement was cited by HRSD manager Ted Henefin in a July 15, 2009 Virginia Pilot newspaper article by Mike Saewitz entitled “Hampton Roads sewer rates may soar by 2019“. In that article, Chesapeake Councilwoman Ella Ward, in referencing the 80% rate hike proposed by HRSD for the years 2009-2019 inclusive, commented: “We find this appalling. It’s an economic downturn for our citizens, and your (sic) giving an increase of $2 per month to each household. The citizens didn’t have an opportunity to respond, because a majority of them did not know”. The article goes on to say “Henefin admitted that HRSD seems to be an ‘unknown entity’ to many people and that public speakers rarely show up to its meetings.” The lack of public involvement and transparency was seemingly addressed in the Federal Consent Decree that HRSD is under for violations of the Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C Section 1251 et.sec. (Ibid) on page 44 of that civil action Court Order wherein the HRSD is ordered to publish and invite public participation and notice in HRSD’s operational response to the pending phased Federal Consent Decree regarding Sanitary Sewer Overflows. Another question we received asked: If the HRSD publishes a notice of pending Commission meetings and if the Commission publishes a notice regarding ongoing budget amendments and revised rate schedules and wondered if those notices, if published, would also be published in either the Eastern Shore News and/or the Eastern Shore Post if municipalities on the ESVA elect to avail themselves of the services offered by the HRSD
Yes. We publish in papers with general circulation for all service areas and we would do the same should ES communities become part of HRSD.
B).If the Eastern Shore of Virginia joins the HRSD, will the Commission hold monthly or quarterly meetings on this side of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, or will HRSD customers from the ESVA have to travel to Virginia Beach (if that is the venue) to address the Commission during their monthly or quarterly meetings?HRSD meets 8 times per year in Virginia Beach and 4 times in Newport News. HRSD would not regularly meet on the Eastern Shore. There may be occasions to hold special meetings there, but regular meetings will continue to be in Virginia Beach and Newport News. Commission meeting dates, times and locations, agendas, meeting minutes and other Commission-related information is publicly available at http://www.HRSD.com/commission
C). Upon information and belief (garnered from current HRSD customers who are on our distribution list), bi-monthly HRSD bills are sent from and paid to a billing address in the state of Iowa. Some Exmore residents have asked if the town does elect to join the HRSD, if there will be a location within close proximity to this town of 1400 people where people can pay their sewer bills and discuss the nuances of that bill with a HRSD representative, as they currently do when questions or concerns arise about their water/sewer bills that they receive from the town on a monthly basis.
HRSD would work to find a community on the ES that would partner with HRSD to collect payments. Typically, the local government treasurer’s office or water department has been willing to do that for HRSD in the more remote communities and we would work on a similar arrangement. In addition, customers can pay over the phone or online and HRSD accepts credit card payments with no additional fee.
#3.Does the HRSD Commission raise rates to consumers mid-year when they amend the budget because of cost overruns or unanticipated necessary expenditures that were not included in the current year budget? In reviewing Commission Meeting Minutes, some of our researchers have noted several instances where the Commission has amended the current year budget to cover expenses that were not expected or budgeted. At least one example of this was found on page 19 of 36 of the Commission Meeting Minutes dated May 28, 2019. This agenda item involved additional funding for the installation of approximately 2,420 linear feet of new 36-inch force main from the intersection of Carnegie Drive and Huxley Place to the Middle Ground-City Center Interconnect Force Main west of the CSX railroad tracks. The original amount budgeted for this improvement/repair in the 2019 budget year was $5.2 million. However, the notes show that “(t)he original CIP did not anticipate the costs for easements, design changes, and the City of Newport News work. The project will require additional funding of $2,685,885 to execute the construction phase”. During the same Commission meeting dated May 28, 2019 under Consent Agenda Item 2.c.1, there was a similar revision to a contract with O’Brien & Gere Engineers, Inc. for the 46th Street Sewer Rehabilitation/Replacement Task Order which is necessary in order for HRSD to meet the requirements of the pending Phase II of the Federal Consent Decree to “address sanitary sewer overflows in the region” (according to meeting notes 5.28.2019, resource Bruce Husselbee), The notes seem to reflect that the original contract with OBG was approximately $307,000 and was revised upward to $1,240,300. Again, the question this researcher has is whether or not the cost overruns or unanticipated expenditures cause a mid-year rate hike that was not planned for prior to the budget amendment (s).
We are unaware of any mid-year adjustment of the rates in the history of HRSD. The rates are established on a fiscal year basis and go into effect on July 1 (beginning of the fiscal year). HRSD maintains sufficient reserves to address any unforeseen cost overrun. The example cited is a Capital Project which requires appropriations on a project-by-project basis and are funded by bond proceeds, clean water loans and/or cash funding. Those additional appropriations have no impact on current rates. During the annual budget process, capital projects are updated and re-prioritized to ensure projected capital expenses stay within the annual spending targets. HRSD’s 20-year Financial Forecast outlines the projected capital spend, projected rate increases to fund the regulatory driven projects and resulting debt service coverage ratio.
Note that it was pointed out by the citizen who posed this question to us that new rate hikes, as anticipated within the 10-year HRSD budget forecast, become effective on July 1st of each budget year. Several citizens who participate in the discussions regarding ESVA issues that are shared within our email contact list have sent us the attached segment which was aired on a local television station on September 24, 2019 and which provided coverage of 2019 unanticipated water and sewer rate hikes and resultant bills in the Chesapeake area of the Hampton Roads district. While addressing the concerns of residents in that area regarding reported dramatic increases in their monthly and bi-monthly sewer and water bills, the Director of Chesapeake’s Public Utility Department partially blamed HRSD’s increase in wastewater treatment rates that became effective on July 1, 2019. He cited that HRSD had raised their rates 9% as was forecast in the 2019-2020 budget cycle. One ratepayer who complained about significant raises in her water and wastewater bills claimed that her HRSD bi-monthly bill had jumped $30 with very little corresponding increased water use. We did not know how to respond to that complaint and it was clear that the HRSD Commission or spokesperson was not given the opportunity to offer an explanation in that broadcast, so we thought it only fair that we afford you that opportunity in this inquiry submission, and we will distribute your anticipated response to our readers and especially the several residents who posed that question to us.
As a regional entity, HRSD applies rates uniformly across the service region. Billing is determined by water usage information as provided by the localities and billing frequency is also determined by the localities, not HRSD. The localities also assess sewer charges which are separate from HRSD’s. The costs of treating wastewater continue to increase largely due to regulatory requirements, with more than 80% of HRSD’s CIP work being driven by regulatory pressures. Our operational expenses have stayed in line with inflation. While our rates did increase from $5.37/CCF to $5.86/CCF, the cost to treat wastewater on a per gallon basis is still less than one cent, going from $0.007/gallon in Fiscal Year 2019 to $0.008/gallon this year. These costs are determined on a consumptive basis and can be directly controlled by water usage. There are times where customers may see unusually high meter reads indicating increased consumption, and these are often found to be due to water leaks. HRSD makes billing adjustments in such instances.
#4. Questions regarding the SWIFT Project and Program Funding A). During the May Commission Meeting, HRSD’s general manager was authorized to submit a Letter of Interest for the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) funding for the SWIFT (Sustainable Water Initiative For Tomorrow) program, technology that is slated for five (5) wastewater treatment plants owned and/or managed by HRSD that will eventually pump 100 million gallons per day of highly treated wastewater into the Potomac Aquifer once those projects are completed and online. The Commission Meeting Minutes state that the application for funding had to be submitted to the U.S.EPA by the July 5, 2019 deadline, and it was noted that U.S.EPA “typically takes three to four months to review the letter of interest and determine which projects will receive invitations to apply.” [Page 15 of 36 Commission Meeting Minutes 5/28/2019]. If HRSD is invited to apply for funding, the meeting minutes state that “completed application and non-refundable $100,000 application/loan are due within one-year of invitation.” Our question is: Has the HRSD Commission been notified by the U.S. EPA that they have been selected and invited to apply for WIFIA funding for the SWIFT program?Yes. Please see attached letter. B). This question has been received from multiple readers and pertains to the test project at the Nansemond Treatment Plant that is the flagship of the SWIFT program. Upon information and belief, this pilot project injects approximately one million gallons of highly treated wastewater into the Potomac aquifer daily when it is operating. Question: Given the six months of experience running the SWIFT plant at the Nansemond Wastewater Treatment Plant has the cost per thousand gallons of treated water that is pumped into the aquifer including amortization, capital, energy, labor, and all operational and other costs been determined, and if so, please provide that information in your response to this inquiry so that we can respond to our readers with accurate and verified data.
We spread operating and capital investment costs against all customer accounts so we would never actually develop a specific cost per gallon for SWIFT in isolation. The total cost of operating the SWIFT Research Center was budgeted at $1,069,951 or 0.6% of the total budget of $165,658,819. To answer your question, although we would not typically do this calculation as it is not relative to our financial budgeting process, based on our experience during the first year of operation we included $1,069,951 for the Operation and Maintenance of the SWIFT Research Center based on treating the projected capacity of 1 million gallons per day for a total annual treatment of 365,000,000 gallons. That works out to $0.0029 per gallon or $2.90 per 1000 gallons. Similarly, we spread cost of capital investment against all wastewater treated, not specific to treatment at individual facilities. The capital used to build the facility was $25 million or 0.9% of the current $2.7 billion CIP program. Although we would not typically perform this calculation, the SWIFT Research Center funding came from cash reserves – no financing costs were incurred. The facility was designed for a 20-year life. Following the same logic, the SWIFT Research Center will treat 365 million gallons annually for 20-years for a total of 7.3 billion gallons treated. Recovering the $25 million will require $0.0034 per gallon or $3.40 per 1000 gallons. Total cost is O&M at $2.90 + capital recovery $3.40 for a total cost, all-in of $6.30 per 1000 gallons. Again, we do not budget in this manner as all our facilities have differing costs per gallon treated and we spend much more to move wastewater to our treatment plants from customers living in more remote portions of the service area. We use overall costs spread against total volume treated to recover our actual costs.