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HILLSVILLE — Carroll Public Service Authority members wondered why — at a gathering to explore alternative wastewater treatment — they received an endorsement for conventional methods from their utilities director.
It was a double-take moment last Wednesday when, after about four hours investigating alternatives to get sewer service to Interstate 77 interchanges, authority members heard Director Ray Hill say that a conventional wastewater treatment plant that discharges into a stream is still the best option.
Since about 9 a.m. that morning, the authority members had listened to proposals:
• Tim Sexton of Draper Aden touched upon many of the same positives about onsite treatment as he had to a PSA board with six different members last fall.
Onsite treatment systems use the soil to filter wastewater, and the options and size of the system varies from place to place.
One advantage of onsite treatment over a conventional system involves bypassing things like discharge permitting from the state and potential upgrades needed every five years to get that paperwork renewed, he said.
The ability for onsite treatment depends a great deal on the soil, experts agreed.
• Gary Waite of Jet Inc. talked about his company's package wastewater treatment plants that have been tucked into the ground near restaurants, motels, rest areas, shopping centers and schools to provide service in isolated places, as well as chemical treatment products.
Waite has a 40,000-gallon-per-day package plant himself in Pennsylvania.
• Bobby Lane of the Lane Group talked about how the engineering, architectural and planning firm with an office in Wytheville could assist the authority members.
• Lowell Bowman of Anderson and Associates said he wanted to give the authority members "tools" to make their wastewater treatment decisions.
Both Lane and Bowman advised authority members of the importance of looking at all the factors that go into making a treatment system selection carefully.
Bowman graphically represented the process in a flow chart, while Lane offered a series of steps for the PSA to take into consideration along the way.
After identifying the needs, Lane advised the authority members to look at both "central" (conventional) and "decentralized" (alternative) treatment system options.
County officials would need to look at total construction, total operation and maintenance costs, environmental impacts and more, Lane said. On top of that, they need to consider whether any system would be fundable and expandable, is based on "tried and true" technology and whether that option makes common sense.
Bowman, the last consultant of the day, stressed that the authority should "exhaust... all energies trying to get a conventional system" in the places that need sewage treatment first.
"Your conventional systems are more environmentally friendly," he said. "They're just more proven."
No matter what the authority decides on, he explained, all treatment systems will have a limited lifespan and will present maintenance issues and ongoing costs. They still all have "moving parts."
Another drawback is that onsite treatment requires land — maybe more land than the county officials would want to invest in, Bowman said. These exits are going to have some of the most valuable commercial land in the county, and that will drive costs for the systems up.
"The land cost is a key factor," authority member Manus McMillian said at one point.
The wastewater could be pumped some distance to a treatment site, but there's a cost associated with that too, the authority member added.
Seeking ways to spur development at Interstate 77 exits 1, 8 and 19 during a time when the national economy has slowed, massive layoffs have hit the Twin Counties and getting funds is a challenge, PSA Chairman David Hutchins had called this informal meeting to explore alternative treatments.
The authority members asked questions of the experts — as did citizen Gina Isom — like total costs, cost of treatment, labor, infrastructure needs and more.
At the end of the day, Hutchins asked PSA Director Ray Hill how to get site-specific information about engineering proposals that would allow the authority to make a good choice from the options.
"I'm still kind of thinking about what I think I've heard," the chairman said. "How can we go out to the engineering community and say to them we want you to provide us with your best options?"
He asked if another goal of the Public Service Authority — to pre-qualify engineering firms to provide professional services for the project — would hold the answer to the situation.
Hill indicated that there isn't as much pressure as county officials may believe. "Let's go back..." the director said.
He pointed out the PSA already has a discharge permit for a package plant at Exit 1 in Lambsburg, and has plans in the works for wastewater treatment at Exit 19, as well.
That only leaves the task of choosing a sewage treatment option for Fancy Gap.
And, Hill said that funding agencies prefer that in public infrastructure efforts, the water system come first.
Funding is hard to get for a sewer system if there's no water system in place, he said. It's not impossible, but it makes it easier.
That being said, there's time to weigh the possibilities on wastewater treatment for Exit 8, where a grassroots effort has formed to push for the public utilities.
"We can look at Fancy Gap and we've got time to do that," he said.
And Hill did not hold back on advising the authority about what system he believes will work better when the time comes.
"Conventional sewer treatment is the way to go — it's the cheapest way," Hill said.
Land for drainfields and the necessary pipes to pump effluent to them will increase costs over discharging treated water back into a stream, he said. Put it back anywhere else, the system will cost more.
A Fancy Gap system will need to start out at a capacity of 100,000 gallons per day, with the ability to grow with development, Hill said. He expected a conventional system would better be able to handle that.
"Mr. Chairman, I'm confused what we're doing today," McMillian reacted.
Authority members did seem enthused about the possibility of finding good well sites at places like Lambsburg through a visual study called fracture trace analysis that they heard about from Sexton.
Utilize the available technologies, McMillian said, especially those said to have a high success rate.
Using this method could allow county officials to make a more "educated guess" at the proposed development site in Lambsburg, where two attempts to drill a well have met with disappointing results.