City of Cartersville officials indicate a massive wastewater treatment plant project is halfway finished, with November 2021 now being pinpointed as the anticipated completion date.
To date, the city council has approved three change orders to the project budget.
“With a project of this magnitude and this length — it’s a three-year construction period — there are going to be numerous small things, and some large things, that happen during that time,” said City of Cartersville Water Department Director Bob Jones. “The last change order that we did, it was an increase to the project cost, but it was an increase that gets netted against a large deduct that we did in change order no. 1.”
The last change order, approved by council members last month, added about $224,000 in additional project expenses. Factoring in the first two change orders, however, the total cost of the project has decreased by a little over $500,000, with the overall price tag — as of mid-July — tabbed at $37,044,341.42.
The extensive upgrades come after the City received a new wastewater discharge permit in 2018, which required the municipality to comply with much stricter discharge guidelines. Since the treatment plant was originally constructed in the 1960s, Jones said the facility was unable to treat unconventional pollutants, such as phosphorous.
“Every plant is unique, so when a mandate comes out that says ‘thou shalt attain a concentration of x for this constituent,’ I sometimes think people think that it’s a formula that every plant and every person who treats water just plugs into this formula and out comes the same result,” Jones said. “Because the City of Cartersville’s flow at the wastewater plant is very heavily industrial, the constituents of that flow are vastly different than, say, a town that is primarily residential.”
Jones said there is no “getting off cheap” when it comes to working with unfunded mandates so costly.
“For a city our size to take on a project of this magnitude — a $37 million project where we come out of the back of it with a wastewater plant that doesn’t have any added capacity, we just treat to a much higher standard — that is a significant financial burden, and it’s one that’s being felt everywhere,” he said. “As those required standards for our discharge go down, the cost is exponential to go down to the next incremental level, so we’re going to be facing this problem well into the future — as those regulations tighten, the costs are going to go up considerably.”
Weather has posed a challenge for construction, with the last change order adding 19 days to the project.
“Almost all of the underground construction is done, and that’s generally where we feel there’s the greatest risk of the unknown,” Jones said. “There have been certain things abandoned in the plant that aren’t marked on drawings, and sometimes you only find those when you start digging.”
Case in point — workers recently sought to install a chemical feed line, only to be obstructed by a massive concrete block.
Still, Jones said problems of the sort have been relatively minor in terms of project impact.
“I would describe all those kinds of issues that we’ve had up to this point to be within what I consider a normal range of just day-to-day headaches that you deal with when you’re building something like this,” he said.
Jones noted that the City is currently in a public comment period regarding some proposed changes to the municipality’s industrial pretreatment program.
“Our intention right now is to not change our local limits,” Jones said. “The study itself does say that there are some changes that can be made, but primarily, those changes would be to increase the amount of pollutants that are allowed to come to the plant.”
However, he said the City may reevaluate some of its limits — albeit, not to the degree the EPD would permit.
“We have had a few industries that bumped up against zinc in the past, but this is proposing an over three-fold increase in the allowable amount of zinc,” he said. “And we don’t want to go up that high, and don’t need to … our position right now is we have a very strong, very good industry base, they’re good at compliance and we’ll stick with what we’ve got.”
Once the standards are approved by the EPD, the regulations would be formally adopted through a city council vote.
“Without knowing exactly what the timeline is on the EPD segment of that, you’re probably looking at, best case scenario, three to six months,” Jones said. “They would just continue to comply with the same limitations that they have in all of their industrial pretreatment permits, it would just be business as usual after these things are adopted.”
On the local level, Jones said the big benefit of the wastewater plant upgrades comes in the form of cleaner discharges.
“As we well know, the use of the river downstream of the plant for recreation is something that has become much more popular in the last several years,” he said. “It’s a good thing, also, for our neighbors downstream, because the discharge from this plant goes in the Etowah River, and ultimately, the other cities and water providers downstream from us, they use that as their raw water to produce drinking water for the other towns.”
Ultimately, Jones said the plant upgrades could also be to the benefit of Cartersville’s industrial users, noting that the more robust treatment system could potentially pave the way for laxer regulations.
“The study indicated that we could increase those limits, and while we’re not going to do that immediately, what we would actually like to do is get some operational experience with the plant and see if it will do what the model that those studies are based on say it will do in real-life operation,” he said. “Then we would take a look at going ‘Hey, is there something here we can loosen up on?’”