Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Written 9/18/2007

The Bonds of Hard Labor Creek

The Athens Banner-Herald reported today that a Newton County man has intervened in Walton Superior Court to block the sale of bonds to finance the proposed Hard Labor Creek Reservoir.

Walton and Oconee counties are partners in the $350 million project, with Oconee expected to pay more than $100 million.

The story doesn’t provide much background on Samuel M. Hay III, who filed the brief objecting to the validation of the bonds, or on the grounds for the request that the Court refuse to validate the bonds.

Hay, who has a Covington postal box, has a web site on which he is described as an independent researcher who has worked with environmental issues for more than 20 years. A story in the Banner-Herald in 2002, when Hay announced he was running for Governor as an independent, described him as a "journalist, newspaper officer and print company account manager."

According to the 2002 Banner-Herald story, Hay is not an attorney, though he has "entered into and argued" legal cases as a private citizen.

The Banner-Herald story today waited until the 10th paragraph of a 14-paragraph long story to explain the basis of Hay’s objection to the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir. The top of the story dealt with Walton County official responses to the legal action.

Some of the arguments Hay makes are ones that were voiced in Oconee County before the Board of Commissioners voted on September 4 to join with Walton County on the reservoir project. Others are new.

In his "Intervenor’s Brief," which Hay sent to me in response to my request, he claims that "Walton County has failed, by all standards of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and appropriate Federal Law, to explore and prioritize more environmentally sound, less expensive and more productive alternative sources of water for the citizens."

"The debt service on this, the largest public works project ever undertaken in this County, will raise the cost of the project to in excess of $800 MILLION DOLLARS," Hay writes.

"Families farms, homes and a way of life will be needlessly destroyed forever having been inundated by the reservoir," according to the document.

Hay further contends:

"This reservoir will evaporate up to ten million gallons of water per day resulting in a valuable loss of downstream water supply to what may be the most valuable estuary in the entire Atlantic Ocean. This coastal region which reaches from the South Carolina state line to Jacksonville, Florida is being destroyed by the lack of planning and conservation of water resources within this area. Slowing of the flows in the waterways has destroyed valuable spawning grounds for marine life whose hatch are killed upon contact with the ever increasing salt content of the marshes due to reservoirs in this region causing severe chemical changes in the brackish water chemistry."

The filing also questions whether proper legal notice about the bond validation hearing was provided in Oconee County.

Finally, it questions whether permits will be granted for the pumping of water from the Apalachee River to the Hard Labor Creek Reservoir given previously issued licenses.

The Banner-Herald was following a story in The Walton Tribune published a on September 16. The Tribune story didn’t contain much information either.

Hay’s brief is on the web site, Oconee County Observations II.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Written 9/10/2007

What About Those Bids?

Oconee County has tossed out the three bids it received for the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage treatment plant and will begin the process anew, according to Alan Theriault, administrative officer for the County.

Theriault sent me an e-mail message on September 7, three days after the Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted to upgrade the Rocky Branch plant, saying he plans "to meet with Utility Department personnel in the next several days to discuss particulars of moving forward and develop a rough time-line."

Theriault said he expected the initial step to be a "Request for Qualifications" advertisement "to identify design firms or teams that have specific experience with membrane filtration wastewater systems and that would be interested in this project."

The Utility Department had selected Jordan Jones & Goulding as its preferred bidder from among three firms that submitted bids for the project on July 31, 2007. JJ&G had proposed abandoning the membrane filtrate technology specified in the request for proposals in favor of a more traditional approach that produces lower quality water than membrane filtration.

The BOC brushed aside concerns of a full room of citizens when it voted unanimously to go forward with the Rocky Branch expansion.

On behalf of the Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek, I had asked the BOC to guarantee that treated water from the plant will not be released into Barber Creek during floods, to agree to treat the water to the highest level the technology will allow, and to provide for independent monitoring of the plant.

At the September 4 meeting, BOC Chairman Melvin Davis said the concerns focused on operation of the plant and should be addressed at a later time.

Commissioners Margaret Hale, Chuck Horton and Jim Luke sent me e-mail messages after the meeting restating their willingness to discuss these requests. Commissioner Don Norris said not a word at the meeting and has not written me since.

At the meeting, I asked the Board to at least pass a resolution confirming its intent to respond to these concerns, but it refused.

Citizens who have depended on the media for an understanding of what is going on with the Rocky Branch upgrade are in a bind.

The Athens Banner-Herald has yet to write a word about the September 4 decision on Rocky Branch, though it did run a lengthy report about the BOC’s decision to join with Walton County on the Hard Labor Creek reservoir. That commitment is for an estimated $48 million. The Rocky Branch upgrade is expected to cost another $8-10 million.

The Oconee Enterprise had lengthy stories on both the reservoir and the Rocky Branch upgrade it its September 6 edition. The reporting was largely on target.

The Oconee Leader didn’t report on either vote in its September 6 edition, though it did put a story on its web site that day that provided a short but accurate account of the votes at the meeting.

Neither of these papers, however, reported on what happened to the three bids or what will happen next.

On July 31, the day the bids were opened, Utility Director Chris Thomas reported to the BOC that three bids had been received and indicated that he would be back in a week with a recommendation. The Utility Department leaders also said that the BOC should decide how to allocate the new sewage capacity between residential and commercial users.

On August 7, Thomas reported to the BOC that he was recommending JJ&G for the contract. Chairman Davis tried to get the Board to move on the recommendation, but it refused. Commissioner Hale said the Board had never voted to upgrade Rocky Branch. Commissioner Horton said he was opposed to JJ&G.

Utility Department head Thomas, however, is quoted in August 16 issue of The Oconee Enterprise as saying JJ&G was "still a viable option. The Board simply needs more information."
The agenda for the September 4 meeting gave no indication of what Chairman Davis would ask the Board to do. The action item was: "Consider upgrade of Land Application System." No sewage water presently leaves the Rocky Branch site; it is sprayed on hay fields on the property in what is termed a land application system.

When I posted my report (below) on 9/2/2007, pointing out that JJ&G had proposed eliminating the membrane system, was involved in the initial planning stages for the plant, and had been selected in part by members of a firm with which it has partnered in the past, I sent it to Commissioners Hale, Horton and Luke. I also sent it to the Banner-Herald and The Oconee Leader.

In accordance with an agreement I made with Chairman Davis on August 30, in exchange for being given access to the BOC chamber projection system and for being allowed to make a 12-minute presentation on behalf of the four Friends of Barber Creek Board members, I provided Davis with a copy of my comments on September 3.

In early afternoon on September 4, Davis e-mailed me at my office and asked me to call him. He then told me he saw no problems with our request that Rocky Branch meet a higher standard of discharge, since it already was doing that. He also said the County was committed to membrane filtration for the new plant.

He did not indicate that the bids would be tossed out, that the vote would be only whether to upgrade, or that no decision would be made about the three requests the Friends of Barber Creek leadership was making.

After I made our presentation at the meeting, however, Davis asked the BOC if it was ready to make a decision to move forward on Barber Creek.

Commissioner Hale asked Assistant Utility Director John Hatcher if the County was considering eliminating the membrane filtration system. Hatcher said the proposal was to use another technology to supplement the membrane system, but membranes would still be used.

The JJ&G bid recommended eliminating membranes entirely.

Hatcher also told Hale that the upgrade will include water storage facilities large enough to hold water for 28 days without discharging into Barber Creek. He said that would be enough for any flood period. He said the upgrade would cost between $8-10 million, though earlier estimates had been $6-8 million.

Commissioner Norris next made a motion to approve the upgrade. Commissioner Horton seconded. All four of the Commissioners voters to approve. The Chairman only votes in the case of a tie.

Before the vote, I tried to get Davis to let me speak again. He ignored me. After the vote, I continued to try. Commissioner Luke told Davis he wanted to let me come forward to speak again. Davis agreed.

I told the Board I thought we had "been outmaneuvered."

During the exchange, I reminded Davis that he earlier had rejected a request from the Friends of Barber Creek leadership to speak before the BOC on the grounds that he already knew what our concerns were. He said he had not rejected our request because he had allowed us to speak that night.

Davis sent me an e-mail on the morning of September 6, saying "You received the assurance from the Board that your requests would be reviewed and decisions will be made at the appropriate time when facility operational matters are considered. I view this as a positive result. I believe we all want a facility that is effective, efficient, economical, and environmentally friendly. When all is complete, I trust we will reach that goal."

I told Administrative Officer Theriault in e-mail messages on September 5 and 7 that I want to be informed about procedures to be followed in this second bidding process for the upgrade and that the Friends of Barber Creek leadership wants to review all the steps.

I also have told Chairman Davis and Commissioners Hale, Horton and Luke that we will not go away.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Written 9/3/2007

Why Not Give Us What We Want?

Friends of Barber Creek has consistently asked that Oconee County officials agree to three things should they decide to expand the Rocky Branch sewage plant and begin discharging treated wastewater into Barber Creek.

We’ve asked that the water not be released when the creek is flooding, that the water be treated to the highest level the technology will allow, and that the County provide for independent monitoring.

The County plans to include holding ponds in the upgrade. It has presented charts that show the new plant can exceed the proposed standards. And helping citizens monitor the plant’s operation would be inexpensive.

So why not simply agree to the requests?

E-mail correspondence between officials and Precision Planning Inc., the County's consultant, provide explanations.

Just after noon on December 12, the day of the hearing before the Georgia Environmental Protection Division on the County’s request for a permit to discharge 1.0 million gallons per day of treated wastewater into Barber Creek, Jimmy Parker of PPI sent an e-mail message to Alan Theriault, administrative officer of the County, Melvin Davis, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, Gary Dodd, Utility department director, and Christopher Thomas, assistant director of the Utility Department.

Parker also copied the message to Wayne Haynie of Jordan Jones & Goulding and Jim Sunta of PPI. The Utility Department is recommending that JJ&G get the bid to upgrade Rocky Branch.

The purpose of the message was to explain how the officials should address "the three issues presented in the attached flier," which was the petition we circulated asking the EPD to impose our three requests on the County.

Parker said that once Barber Creek floods, the additional water discharged from the plant would produce an increase in water that is "negligible." He said: "In fact, a fallen tree would have much more impact on stream hydraulics and flood levels than the proposed discharge."

So even if the impact is minimal, why not agree to hold the water?

In times of high rain, the County will have few customers for reuse water. The spray fields at the site also will be saturated. It is at these times when the County will most need to discharge into Barber Creek.

Those of us along the creek know that it has flooded often and badly in recent years. We also know that even another tree falling into it is a problem.

So how about the higher level of treatment?

"I feel the County is already going above and beyond, and the water that will be discharged will be cleaner than the water in the Creek," Parker writes. "The real answer to this question is that it would be cost prohibitive, and the net benefits of treating to higher standards do not justify the additional costs.

"I strongly recommend that the County hold their position as ‘meeting’ the requirements established by the State," Parker continued. "If we commit to exceed those requirements, the State may possibly reduce current effluent limits, which would result in additional costs for this and all future treatment expansions."

So it is a matter of money, and not yet being required to meet the higher standards.

Ironically, PPI and JJG prepared a slide presentation for the hearing that showed the Calls Creek sewage plant–the only other sewage plant operated by the County–easily exceeds the standards set by the state on at least two criteria. The Calls Creek plant uses the same technology proposed for Rocky Branch.

So what about independent monitoring?

"The EPD has the right to do this at any time," Parker writes, "but usually these activities are limited to compliance issues due to staffing shortages."

"In my opinion, Oconee County would not object to additional downstream sampling," Parker continued. "But this is an issue that must be addressed by the State, based on availability of resources."

In other words, if the state wants to do it, it is fine with Parker.

The Board of Directors of Friends of Barber Creek has asked that the County help citizens do this monitoring by creating a fund for that purpose and posting all records from operation of the plant on the County’s web site.

These are the issues that will be addressed at the BOC meeting tomorrow night (Sept. 4).

Though BOC Chairman Davis was involved in this correspondence with Parker and the other consultants, the four other members of the Commission are unlikely to even be aware of it.

The department heads work for Davis and report to him.

The four other commissioners, however, can tell Davis and the Utility Department how to operate the plant by agreeing to the three request we are making.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Written 9-2-2007

Baiting with Membranes

For three years, Oconee County officials have touted in public meetings the membrane filtration technology for its proposed expansion of the Rocky Branch sewage plant, saying the technology will allow the County to discharge "near drinking level" quality water into Barber Creek.

The County told the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) when it applied for its permit to discharge into Barber Creek that it would use the membrane filtration technology in the plant.

When, on June 29 of this year, it issued a Request for Proposal for engineering design and support for construction of the upgrade, the County said the upgraded plant would use membrane filtration to treat the sewage water passing through it.

Prior to the July 26, 2007, deadline for submission of bids, however, County officials told bidders the County was interested in using less sophisticated technologies for Rocky Branch.

Jordan Jones & Goulding (JJ&G), the bidder that Utility Department Director Chris Thomas has recommended to the Board of Commissioners, has proposed two alternatives to membrane filtration.

Thomas has informed Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin Davis he wants to explore the alternatives JJ&G proposed to membrane filtration for Rocky Branch.

Chairman Davis has put a decision on the upgrade of the Rocky Branch sewage plant on the agenda for the Sept. 4 meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

That Thomas would pick JJ&G from among the three bidders probably should not have been a surprise. JJ&G, with headquarters in Norcross but a branch office on South Milledge avenue in Athens, partnered with Precision Planning Inc. (PPI) of Lawrenceville in preparing the Design Development Report (DDR) the County submitted to the EPD with its application for its Rocky Branch discharge permit.

The report specified the membrane filtration technology to be used at Rocky Branch.

JJ&G also was in charge of construction of the existing Rocky Branch facility, which sprays treated sewage water onto hayfields on site and does not have a permit to discharge into any stream.

In addition, JJ&G competed with PPI over reservoir proposals for Oconee County, with PPI proposing the Walton County Hard Labor Creek project and JJ&G proposing a reservoir in Oconee County on Barnett Shoals road. PPI won, and the Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on Sept. 4 on a contract with Walton County for the Hard Labor Creek reservoir.

Thomas asked two people from PPI to evaluate the three bids submitted on July 26 and included their scores for the bids in reaching his decision to recommend JJ&G.

At the BOC meeting of July 31, 2007, when Thomas announced that three bids had been received, he said the bids would be rated by PPI, the County’s Public Works department, the Utility Department assistant director, and himself.

The evaluators rated the bids on five criteria, as specified in the Request for Proposal.

The raters could give up to 15 points for qualifications, experience and office location of the project manager, up to 15 points for experience of the bidder in design and construction of upgrades and expansions of sewage plants, up to 15 points for the experience of the bidder with membrane filtration systems, up to 15 points for the bidders understanding and approach to the project, and up to 40 points for the costs.

Thomas received ratings from Jimmy Parker and Jim Sunta of PPI, Dan Wilson, the assistant county engineer, and from John Hatcher, the assistant Utility Department director.

Keck & Wood Inc. of Duluth had the low bid of $643,000 but also the lowest average score from the five raters: 67.6. (Thomas reported the score of 63 in an e-mail message he sent to Chairman Davis on August 2, 2007.) Carter & Sloope bid $690,000 and received an average rating of 77.6. JJ&G, with its bid of $680,580, received a score of 92.6.

Low bidder Keck & Wood got the highest ratings on cost (average of 40 out of 40 points), but the lowest ratings on each of the other four criteria. JJ&G beat out all bidders on qualifications, experience and office location of the project manager, experience of the bidder in design and construction of upgrades and expansions of sewage plants, and for the experience of the bidder with membrane filtration systems. It essentially was tied with Carter & Sloope on understanding and approach to the project. (The scores can be viewed here.)

In his e-mail message to Davis on Aug. 2, Thomas said that, based on the scores, "the review team recommends the use of JJ&G for the design of the upgrade to the Rocky Branch WRF." (WRF stands for water reclamation facility and is an alternative name for sewage treatment plant.)

Thomas also wrote that "There are a number of alternate design approaches," and he had asked Wayne Haynie, senior vice president of JJ&G, "to include a pricing clarification based on some of the different approaches."

As I explained in my posting on Aug. 18, 2007, Davis tried to get the Commissioners to act on Thomas’ recommendation of JJ&G at the August 7 BOC meeting. The minutes say, "By consensus, no action was taken on this matter." I could not attend the meeting, and I don’t know if Thomas gave any hint then that JJ&G actually was proposing alternatives to the membrane filtration system.

Haynie from JJ&G and Van Kile, senior project manager, in their cover letter for their bid, said they were "delighted" to learn that Oconee County was willing to consider alternatives to membrane filtration for Rocky Branch. Haynie and Kile said they learned of this "flexibility in your thinking" at "the preproposal conference."

Haynie was one of 16 persons present at a "Pre-Submittal Conference" held on July 19, 2007, according to records given to me by the County. The official agenda for that meeting makes no reference to alternatives to membrane filtration.

The Request For Proposal, which specifies bid requirements, said: "Oconee County is committed to incorporating advanced technologies in its wastewater collection and treatment strategies and, therefore, has designated that the Rocky Branch WRF upgrade include membrane filters." (P. 7)

In the cover letter, Haynie wrote: "We know that you do not necessarily need a membrane plant to produce reuse water. Therefore, we are proposing a plant design that will provide you the following benefits:

"Lower energy consumption, allowing for lower annual operating costs.

"Easily expandable, because of common wall construction and site layout.

"Convertible to membranes in the future as discharge limits tighten."

According to the proposal, the membrane filtration system has three advantages over alternatives. It requires little space. It provides "an additional barrier to fecal coliform, cryptosporidium, and giardia, which results in more reliable disinfection." And it "will meet more stringent requirements without additional capital expense."

The EDP permit issued for Rocky Branch expires on March 29, 2012, and the County will have to seek reissuance of a permit for operation beyond that date. Standards could be changed.

JJ&G lists four disadvantages of the membrane technology: higher capital costs, higher energy costs, periodic membrane replacement, and the relative novelty of the technology.

It proposes as alternatives an "oxidation ditch process" and a "fill-and-decant activated sludge system." Both would require upgrading to meet more stringent effluent requirements, according to the proposal.

In the public presentations on the proposed Rocky Branch upgrade, County officials have praised the County’s only other sewage plant, which is on Calls Creek near Watkinsville. That plant used membrane filtration, and the County has held it up as a model. No problems with the plant have been mentioned publicly.

The JJ&G proposal, however, said that the County has experienced "unreliable water quality using membranes at Calls Creek." (P. 10)

JJ&G acknowledges that the Design Development Report (which it co-authored with PPI) has been reviewed and approved by EPD, but it said it is prepared to revise a DDR for submittal to EPD.

Keck & Wood, with two representatives at the Pre-Submittal Conference on July 19, did not include any alterative to membrane filtration it its bid.

Carter & Sloope also had one person at that meeting. The firm noted in its application that it understood that the Rocky Branch expansion was for a plant with a capacity of 1 million gallons per day (MGD) of capacity and that the proposal should allow for expansion to 2 MGD.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) asked bidders to prepare for expansion to 2 MGD. Carter & Sloope also note that it understood that the "ultimate build-out" of the plant could be 4 MGD, something the County has not openly acknowledged in the past.

Carter & Sloope submitted its bid based on "membrane technology as outlined in the RFP and DDR."

Carter & Sloope added: "It is our understanding that the County is having some concerns about the long-term O&M expenses of membrane treatment plants." It noted that it uses a disk filtration technology at the plant it designed for Barrow County, the only sewage plant currently discharging into Barber Creek.

Carter & Sloope cautions Oconee County, however, that while it would be willing to propose an alternative design to the County, the switch in technologies "may be a tough sell politically to the general public since Rocky Branch Water Reclamation Facility was predicated on membrane technology. Carter & Sloope attended all of the Oconee County public meetings and is aware of the public interest in this project."

The Carter & Sloope proposal contains another interesting observation:

"Sewer service is the catalyst to ignite the growth (in the County) and sustain it. While the economic impact may be positive, the impact on the natural resources of Oconee County and its infrastructure will be tremendous. To mitigate those impacts, adequate plans–a vision, if you will–must be put into place that will help Oconee County meet its current and future wastewater needs."

Oconee County has never adopted a wastewater master plan, though it hired a firm to do one for it. The first draft was produced in March of 2004. The second and final was produced in Feb. of 2005.

Both drafts recommended that the County begin shifting its waste treatment capacity from Calls Creek and Barber Creek to the Oconee River.

Care to know the name of the firm that produced that wastewater master plan?

Yes, it was JJ&G.