A continuing theme in Purcellville’s municipal election this year is the amount of town debt—mostly linked to the utility systems—and casting blame for its scale.
At the center of the debate is the Basham Simms Wastewater Treatment Plant, which underwent a $30 million expansion starting in 2008. Critics say the plant is oversized, leaving town residents with higher bills to pay for years to come. Those who served on the Town Council when the expansion was approved—as well as members of town staff—say they had few options in efforts to comply with regulatory mandates.
According to the town staff, under normal conditions today, the plant treats between 500,000 and 600,000 gallons of wastewater per day on average—less than half of its 1.5 million gallons per day design capacity. During extreme weather events the flow is higher. Following February’s blizzard, nearly 2 million gallons per day flowed into the plant.
Some Town Council members, including first-term Mayor Kwasi Fraser, and several candidates on the ballot May 3 continue to criticize members of previous councils and the town staff for expanding the plant and challenge the underpinnings of the decision as lacking factual basis.
To provide voters with a context from which to assess the competing claims, we’ve assembled this review from documents and reports provided by the town government.
The Move to Modernization
Beginning in the 1990s, the state Department of Environmental Quality urged town leaders to upgrade Purcellville’s wastewater treatment operations, which were first established in the late 1940s at a plant on South 20th Street.
In 2002, the Basham Simms Wastewater Treatment Plant was opened. During its planning, regulatory agencies and the town staff recommended that the plant be designed to treat up to 1.5 million gallons per day (mgd) to handle growth planned in town and—at that time—around its borders in the Urban Growth Area jointly designated for development by the town and the county.
The council opted to build the new plant to a 1 mgd treatment capacity as the most fiscally responsible option.
A growth wave quickly followed. The 2000 census determined the town’s population was 3,584. The town’s growth plan, according to a consultant’s report, projected a population of 7,509 by 2020. Today, the town’s population is close to 9,000.
The State Steps In
The Basham Simms plant almost immediately faced challenges. Increasingly, the plant failed to handle peak flows and had major problems with inflow and infiltration in the system’s collection pipes.
In 2003, DEQ required the town to address violations of its permit after flows to the plant repeatedly exceeded treatment limits, and placed the town government under a consent order to make upgrades. The town had hired consultants to identify the cause of the “exceedences,” according to the consent order, attributing the cause, in part, to high flows during wet weather and heavy rainfall and snows. Those conditions impaired the facility’s nitrification process. Additionally, the system evaluation identified design deficiencies in its flow equalization process.
The town implemented operational changes—including altering the chemical and biological systems and biological removal of nitrogen and phosphorus—but the improved performance was “not sufficient to ensure consistent compliance with Permit effluent limits,” according to the consent order.
In June 2003, town representatives met with the DEQ staff to discuss how to bring the facility into compliance. The town agreed to correct previously unidentified design problems. They entered into another consent order that dictated a construction schedule for upgrading the plant and reducing inflow and infiltration in the town’s sewer lines.
The town consulted with several engineers on the project. Findings from four studies and consultations with regulatory agencies resulted in recommendations for a treatment capacity ranging from 1.5 mgd to 2.8 mgd.
The council voted to go with the lowest recommended treatment capacity and also to deploy sophisticated membrane treatment technology that would comply with new mandated standards for removing nitrogen and phosphorous.
The new plant opened in 2010.
The records of historical monthly average effluent flows at the plant between 2007 and 2013 show peak flows exceeding 1.5 mgd a number of times—with highest flow of 2.14 mgd in October 2012.
Over the past six months, the average flows ranged from 537,700 gallons in November to 1,012,100 gallons in February. The maximum flows ranged from 782,800 gallons last November to 1.94 mgd in February. Included with the 2010 plant upgrades was the creation of a storage pond designed to hold the excess wastewater until the flow recedes and it can be treated.
The town has maintained in compliance with treatment requirements and the terms of its state permit since the plant upgrade.
The plant upgrade was financed through a $5 million grant from DEQ, $24 million in Virginia Resources Authority bonds, $285,500 from Bank of America, and the remainder from the town. The total debt for the plant expansion came to $30 million. Budgeted payments on the project’s financing are scheduled to continue another 17 years, until 2034. The impact of the debt cost on residents may be lessened as a result of a settlement with the developers of the Mayfair subdivision which resulted in an agreement to pay up to $13 million in utility fees in installments over about six years.
While the town’s new treatment system solved the town’s compliance problems, growth in wastewater flows has slowed.
Town staff members attribute that to a number of factors. Chief among them was the decision to scale back on plans for new development, with prior councils removing some 1,000 new homes from the anticipated development pipeline. The recession has slowed also the pace of development in town. Also, use patterns began to change, with a push for water conservation that was encouraged—even subsidized by the town—that gave grants to residents who purchased more efficient appliances.
In hindsight, could those combination of factors permitted the town to continue operations with its 1 mgd plant for another decade? Not likely, former town leaders said, not only because of the DEQ consent decree requiring expansion to treat the peak flows, but also because of the high cost involved in retrofitting the then-existing plant to meet the Chesapeake Bay treatment standards.
The question for the future town councils is how to keep the cost of plant operations—costs that are spread among the town’s sewer customers—affordable for its residents.