Powers City Hall

POWERS — The City of Powers is running out of time: Councilors have 60 days from March 28 to either make "adequate progress" toward beginning the U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved sewage treatment plan project or else request a "de-obligation" of the millions of federal dollars marked for the project, essentially forfeiting them.

At Tuesday's meeting of the Powers City Council, Councilor Jim Adamek said the council was not prepared to make a decision on whether to choose between going with a grinder-based wastewater treatment system unpopular with the council and many Powers residents or giving up the money entirely.

Councilor Charlie Possee said he is in the process of drafting a response letter to USDA Community Programs Director Sam Goldstein, a letter which councilors added input on Tuesday but which has not yet been released to the public. City Recorder Stephanie Patterson said she would provide The World with a copy of the letter when it is approved and sent out.

An 'I & I' problem

Powers, like many Oregon towns, has a problem with infiltration and inflow, or "I & I"— water that leaks into the system, most often in the form of rain, and can push a sewage treatment plant past its treatment capability.

Both Coquille and Myrtle Point had to address this issue as well. Myrtle Point's new plant is scheduled to go online this summer. Coos Bay-based engineering firm Civil West Engineering is overseeing the Myrtle Point project.

Civil West also is the engineer of record for Powers, and was the driving force behind the proposed grinder system which the USDA and Oregon Department of Environmental Quality declared to be the most cost-effective option for Powers.

But the grinder system has proven controversial in Powers. Many residents opposed being made to sign city easement papers allowing the city to install grinders on their property. Others bristled at an inevitable rate increase that would come from the city repaying federal loans to pay for the project.

The grinder system proved so unpopular that last fall, a recall election removed three pro-grinder councilors. Replacements opposed to grinders were elected in their stead.

Although council sentiment toward the grinder system might have changed, the state and federal view has not.

The cost of delay

$250 a day.

That's the state penalty that Powers could have to pay for every day that goes by without addressing its unacceptable "I and I" levels. Though DEQ has granted the City of Powers extension after extension, since 1995, while the city worked toward, Western Region Water Quality Program Manager Ranei Nomura made clear in a March 15 letter that the city won't be getting any more.

"Given that the city received a substantial funding package from USDA and has a competent engineering firm in place to finalize plans, DEQ does not intend to extend the (Mutual Agreement and Order) again," Nomura wrote.

But despite the looming state and federal deadlines, Powers councilors have focused not on the construction of a new wastewater plant but on the rehabilitation of the city's existing, aging gravity-based treatment plant.

In December, councilors voted to hire Harry Pierson, a former public works director, to take over the plant. Pierson said he had a plan to help the plant "make the numbers," that is, to reduce the harmful biological material in the water to below state limits.

Pierson said that he was able to turn the plant around and meet his goals, and he said what he was doing was no secret — anybody could do it. Pierson has, on several occasions, extended an open invitation to anyone to come check his methods.

But his methods are not without skeptics.

Jon Gasik, senior DEQ engineer, said that while the plant might be able to make numbers occasionally in the winter, there is no way it would be able to consistently do so, especially in the summer.

Even Michael Bollweg, a Cave Junction consultant hired by the city to give a second opinion of the plant, expressed skepticism about the plant's long-term viability.

While Bollweg praised Pierson's work — "The staff is making an exceptional effort to reduce 'I & I' in the gravity system and it is commendable." — he said the amount of "I & I" the plant is dealing with is "off the charts extreme," beyond the capability of treatment "without extreme intervention."

Bollweg said the plant was well beyond its life expectancy, "extremely degraded throughout most of the facility."

The consultant pointed out multiple problem areas in the plant, including a trickling filter that is "hydraulically overloaded and short-circuiting on the outer rim of the filter."

Bollweg said even if Pierson is able to make the plant "make numbers," it would be dependent on Pierson to do so, "and that is not a good long-term strategy for compliance for your town."

Dissent

Bollweg's words were not well-received at Tuesday night's meeting.

Powers Mayor Bill Holland accused Bollweg of being on the payroll of Bill Boger, principal engineer at Civil West.

"I don't know about that," Adamek said, but he too had his doubts about Bollweg's findings. "He sounded very good on the phone."

Possee acknowledged Bollweg's concerns but wondered aloud whether a structural engineer had evaluated the plant.

Pierson said the letter contained mixed messages.

"There's quite a lot in that letter that you've got to read between the lines on," Pierson said.

Bollweg's not alone in having his doubts turned aside by the council. Gasik's criticisms, and Goldstein's, and attorney Jane Stebbins of the North Bend law firm Stebbins & Coffey all have questioned the council's pursuit of rehabilitating the gravity system at the expense of the grinder project. Stebbins wrote a letter in January, warning that "they are using city money to pay Mr. Pierson for something he cannot deliver."

Holland on Tuesday suggested that Civil West be removed as the city's engineer of record. Councilors have already voted to send out a request for proposals for a law firm to replace Stebbins & Coffey.

What comes next

Adamek said councilors need to meet with USDA and DEQ and that meeting needs to come soon.

In his letter to the City of Powers, USDA's Goldstein wrote that time is running out to take action.

"Absent a decision or a mutually agreed upon alternative approach between USDA, ODEQ and the City of Powers in the next 60 days, Rural Development may issue a formal notice of intent to de-obligate funds unilaterally," Goldstein wrote.

A letter from Corvallis-based consultant Dan Hanthorn might contain a clue of what alternative Powers might pursue.

"Since completion of the facility plan, newer techniques and technologies have become available to consider as an alternative to the existing approved plan," Hanthorn wrote.

Hanthorn suggested two such options: "flood and seal" gravity sewer rehabilitation — which Hanthorn said was successfully implemented in Seattle and which would suit Powers' relatively flat terrain — and membrane treatment technology.

It remains to be seen whether the USDA or DEQ will approve those recommendations, but Hanthorn's letter contains a note of optimism.

"Opportunities exist to refine the alignment of externally driven goals with community objectives," Hanthorn wrote.

Reporter Andrew Sheeler can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 234, or by email at andrew.sheeler@theworldlink.com. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewsheeler.

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