The Westminster mayor and Common Council convened Monday, Sept. 17, to go over the latest details concerning the biggest project in city history — an approximately $70-million overhaul of its wastewater treatment facility.
A considerable revamping of the city’s wastewater treatment facility has been in the works for more than a decade, with stricter nitrogen and phosphorus emission targets resulting from the second Chesapeake Bay Agreement in 2000. The agreement, which built upon nutrient reduction initiatives achieved under the inaugural 1983 bay agreement, strives for better water quality.
“It’s important for the health of the bay,” Council President Robert Wack told the Times before the 7 p.m. meeting. “I think everybody (on council) recognizes that and is supportive.”
Liquid discharge from wastewater treatment plants, and agricultural and urban stormwater runoff are the three most prominent contributors of nutrients to the bay.
Nutrient pollution feeds dangerous algae blooms in the bay, said Jay Apperson, Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman. The algae blooms consume oxygen that other marine life need to survive, he added.
The new treatment facility must meet updated MDE markers. Previously, MDE allowed a total nitrogen limit of 8 milligrams per liter on yearly average and total phosphorus limit of 2 milligrams per liter on monthly average. Those targets were slashed to 3 and 0.3 milligrams per liter.
Westminster’s facility cannot achieve those measures without major upgrades — enhanced nutrient removal technologies.
Reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels that escape wastewater treatment plants “has been a very successful program in reducing water pollution,” Apperson said.
Cue city Public Works Director Jeffrey Glass’ project, which includes construction elements, repurposing existing space, replacing decades-old equipment, a geothermal element and converting wastewater into dried sludge that could be sold as fertilizer.
The geothermal system, as Glass called it, does not really use energy from the earth, rather “the energy is in the raw sewage.”
Raw sewage is warm because everyone takes hot showers, Glass explained, and the system he’s drawn up will harness that energy to heat and cool all of the buildings at the plant.
“I always thought that was a cool idea,” Glass told the mayor and Common Council. “I’ve wanted to do it for years and years, and the way it turned out, there was a grant available through the State of Maryland for alternative energy, they thought it was a cool idea too, so we got a grant for that for up to one million dollars.”
The lowest bidder valued the work required for Glass’ “geothermal” initiative at $672,000 — meaning it will be 100 percent covered by the grant, and of no cost to taxpayers.
And the energy-efficient element should pay dividends when it comes time for the city to pay the facility’s electrical bill each month. Right now, Glass said, the plant uses unit heaters, and they are the least energy efficient heating option.
City staff estimate the entire project, which is slated to begin in fiscal year 2019, will cost almost $73.5 million. However, more than half the cost is to be covered by grant money, mostly from the Bay Restoration Fund and Carroll County. The county uses a section of Westminster’s plant for its own septage facility.
All state residents who use the services of a wastewater treatment plant pay a $5 per month fee that goes into the Bay Restoration Fund — sometimes called the flush fund, Apperson said.
Councilman Tony Chiavacci before the meeting told the Times it was “the biggest project, by far, the city has ever undertaken.” Other council members reaffirmed Chiavacci’s characterization after the meeting Monday night.
The $14 million construction element features three key components: solids processing, a sludge dryer and a utility water station.
Updating the biosolids processing means the city needs to replace two belt filters, Glass told the council.
The existing filters were installed between 1988 and 1990, and are four years past their expiration date. These filters capture solids from the wastewater. The decades-old filters do so at a 12-13 percent capture rate, the new ones can achieve more than 20 percent, Glass’ report details.
The belts look like the underside of a carpet, Glass told the council.
“The sludge goes through a conditioning tank where there’s a polymer added and it makes the particles stick together,” Glass explained. “Once (the particles have conjoined) it will go through a gravity zone, where clear water spills out of it. … After that, the de-watered sludge goes into a wedge zone, where it goes between two belts, then around all different rollers and it squeezes the rest of the water out.”
Next up is a water evaporator, also known as a sludge dryer, which takes the solids captured by the belt filters and aerates the solids so that they’re at least 95 percent water-free, Glass said.
The dried material can be used as a renewable fuel for the Lehigh Cement Plant in Union Bridge, the report details, or recycled and sold as fertilizer.
That’s significant because Westminster’s existing practice involves driving the sludge to landfills, where they have to pay to dump waste. It’s expensive and environmentally harmful. Current landfilling costs are almost $600,000 and they are predicted to rise significantly.
A new utility water booster station will replace a 30-year-old, “1988 vintage,” that supplies water to the entire plant and all its functions, Glass explained.
Three emergency generators will flank the biosolids processing facility. The plant could run on one mega generator, Glass explained, but parts would be more expensive and harder to obtain, and in the event that the generator malfunctioned the whole plant would shut down.
Of course, a meeting about sewage and wastewater sludge wouldn’t be complete without addressing the smell. Chiavacci asked Glass the question everyone was probably wondering, “How’s the smell that comes out of that compared to what we currently do?”
“Everyone should understand that it’s not a rose factory,” Glass quipped. “But it’s not as bad as you would think.”
Handling so much waste is expensive. Odor control will cost about $1 million alone, Glass added.
Council members probed Glass with questions all night, but the experienced public works guru had an answer for each — his presentation so convincing that it made at least one council member reverse course on their view of the project.
“I came here hell bent on trying to fight this one piece of the facility, thinking we could save 12 to 14 million dollars potentially,” Chiavacci said at the meeting. “And … I’m wrong.”
Easements of nearby properties and exactly how the city will pay their roughly $30 million cut of the project have to be finalized. The city has been accounting for this project in its financial planning for years, but considering that numbers have been fluid, changing many times, some final calculations remain for the finance department.
Council members explained after the meeting that Westminster’s water and sewer system serves some 15,000 people outside city limits, and that those county residents with Westminster ZIP codes would help pay for the massive project, as well.