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Vergennes OKs $25.5M for big sewer overhaul

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents on Tuesday strongly backed spending up to $25.5 million — with an expectation of major outside government funding — for a complete overhaul of the city’s failing and aging sewer collection system and treatment plant.

The vote in favor of the council proposal went 384 to 60, or about 87-13%.

Vergennes officials believe ratepayers will probably have to fund a bond for half the project’s cost because state and federal grants, some already locked in and others that officials describe as highly likely to be awarded, will pay for the balance.

The most obvious of the sewer system’s failures are the persistent overflows — mostly stormwater, but also containing a small portion of untreated waste — into Otter Creek from its Macdonough Drive pump station, which handles about 70% of the city’s wastewater. Those overflows can at times be measured in hundreds of thousands of gallons.

The Department of Environmental Quality has issued an order to Vergennes to stop the overflows, and at some point the city will face fines.

The system also includes a 60-year-old cast iron sewer main that runs under the river from that pump station to the treatment plant, at least some collection pipes that are more than 100 years old, and a collection of sump pumps that are major contributors to the overflows.

The treatment plant itself, built during the early 1960s and according to officials twice unsuccessfully updated, has two lagoons stuffed with sludge, an inefficient layout, and obsolete equipment that, according to plant operator Rick Chaput, never worked properly even when it was installed two decades ago.

City officials were thrilled by Tuesday’s support for a comprehensive plan they believe will solve all the system’s woes even though earlier fixes — in 2000 and in 1978 — failed to address problems successfully.

“I was hoping for a positive outcome. This exceeds all expectations,” said Mayor Matt Chabot.

Chabot credited Chaput, public works director Jim Larrow, City Manager Ron Redmond, and Hoyle & Tanner Associates project engineer Jennie Auster for communicating the need for the project and explaining how it would work.

“Ron and Jennie and Rick and Jim have done an outstanding job of pulling this all together and making what are very complex and difficult decisions very easy for people to understand.”

And Chabot believes residents appreciated the fact there’s plenty of available federal money — from an earmark from Sen. Patrick Leahy, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development arm.

“The overwhelming amount available to assist the city in this project made it a lot more palatable than it would have been otherwise,” Chabot said.

Now the work begins in earnest. Redmond was asked when efforts would begin and responded by text on Tuesday night.

“It starts tomorrow,” Redmond said. “We have no time to waste.”

First steps will include reaching out to a major funding source, the USDA’s Rural Development arm.

“We are providing USDA RD with the engineering documents they need to calculate the subsidy we’ll receive,” Redmond said. “The positive results of the bond vote — that demonstrates the community’s strong commitment to the project — strengthens our case for more grant support. That we put the entire project into one bond also increases our prospects for higher funding.”

Hoyle Tanner will also start working on details for upgrades to the Macdonough Drive pump station and the addition of a second main under Otter Creek from the pump station to the treatment plant.

“(Hoyle Tanner) wants to move judiciously to get that work done and approved by the state so we can get to the final engineering and construction,” Redmond said.

Councilor Mel Hawley also weighed in on Tuesday night via email. He said he was pleased with the voting outcome, but it will be critical to make sure the project solves the overflow issue.

“I was pretty confident it would get approved by a large margin, but didn’t expect nearly 87% in favor,” Hawley wrote. “Now the heavy lifting begins to get the much needed grant funding and to make sure that the money is used wisely so that overflows from the Macdonough Drive pump station will never occur again once the various projects are completed.”

If city officials are correct about outside funding for the sewer project, annual fees for most users — who pay a set fee per unit, home, business or apartment — would rise gradually from $500 to $860 over a three-year period.

PROJECT DETAILS

Work will include a crackdown on technically illegal sump pumps, which a Hoyle Tanner study identified as the single biggest source of overflows. City officials will rewrite the sump pump ordinance, but have also pledged to work with owners of sump pumps to ease the transition from them.

Key points in the project include:

  • Replacing the outdated, and according to Hoyle Tanner “highly inefficient,” cloth filters and lagoon system with a modern “sequencing batch reactor” system, and adding a “secondary clarifier” to remove more solids.
  • Replacing 5,000 feet of sewer collection pipes in five sections, and determining if more of the 100,000 feet of pipes need repair or replacement.
  • For the Macdonough Drive pump station, more storage “to allow for flow equalization during wet weather events & keep sewage out of the river” and new screening technology to remove “‘rag’ & other debris … which can damage or clog pumps.”
  • The headworks building across the river, which intakes from the collection system and forwards it to the treatment plant, will receive better metering, ventilation upgrades, and “More efficient grit & rag removal processes” to replace work now done by hand.

Like Hawley, Chabot said the council should and would monitor the project to make sure it solves the system’s issues.

“I think we understand this is a significant amount of money, and there have been other false fixes in the past. We wanted to make sure it didn’t occur again. I think the council was prudent in being diligent at every step, as we have to be in every step going forward,” he said. “I don’t want to flush $25 million down the drain.”

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