By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — The City Council last night gave Mayor James Fiorentini approval to borrow $6.9 million to begin phase II of the city’s Combined Sewer Overflow program.
The low interest loan through the state’s revolving fund will pay for upgrades to the city’s water/wastewater plant in Bradford as well as tackle storm water and sewer pipes polluting the Merrimack River.
Deputy DPW Director Robert Ward said the goal is to begin paying the loan without increasing water/wastewater rates this year or next year. He said the full amount of the debt service payment is scheduled to begin in Fiscal Year 2017, when the city will be paying $430,000 a year for 20 years.
Last month, city officials told the council regulators were preparing to crack down on the city’s slow progress in improvements to the so-called combined sewer overflow system.
The network of underground pipes, which serves about one third of the city including the downtown, collects rainwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater.
Most of the time, the collections flow into the city’s sewage treatment plant, where it is cleaned before being discharged into waterways. But during heavy rainfall or the melting of snow, the pipes are allowed to discharge some of the mixture — about 30 million gallons annually — directly into the river.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been after Haverhill, as well as other old mill cities across the country such as Lowell and Manchester, N.H., to get rid of combined sewer overflow systems or make expensive improvements to them.
Ward recently said $9.5 million is needed to upgrade the system this year, including the $6.9 million requested by the mayor, and possibly $30 million or more in the future to appease regulators.
Last night, Ward told councilors that retained earnings will be used in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 to pay the debt, in addition to potential new revenue from the sale of water and wastewater services outside of the city, and anticipated savings in operation and maintenance costs from new equipment, most notably two giant centrifuges.
Ward said the debt will be offset in several ways, including a bond retirement of about $60,000. In addition, the new centrifuges are expected to save about $80,000 per year in sludge disposal costs, as they will produce a drier sludge resulting in less sludge tonnage.
About $30,000 will be saved each year in electricity as new units will be more energy efficient, and as much as $75,000 a year will be saved in repair and maintenance, Ward said.
“The current units are costly to maintain and repair,” Ward said.
Possible new revenue sources include large meter replacement, scheduled to start this summer and result in about $180,000 per year in revenue.
Ward said the work would allow the plant to maximize its capacity during wet weather to help reduce combined sewer overflows. He said the new equipment will be large enough to handle future growth in the city.
Councilor Thomas Sullivan said the federal government should play a greater role in helping communities along the Merrimack River pay for these kinds of projects and that Haverhill isn’t alone in this.
City Councilor Robert Scatamacchia said he supported the project and agreed with Sullivan that the federal government should help pay the cost.
He called it “another unfunded mandate by the federal government.”
But, Scatamacchia said it was important to prevent wastewater from entering the river and recalled how it smelled years ago before preventative measures were put in place.
“This past summer I was actually swimming in the river,” Scatamacchia said.
The city previously spent $18.5 million for improvements to the sewer/drainage system that were completed in 2006. Called Phase I, the work included upgrades to the city’s water treatment plant and improvements to combined sewer/storm water pipes in the city’s Bradford section, Ward said.
It could eventually cost $30 million or more to fully correct the problems and bring Haverhill into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, Ward said. Future improvements are likely to force the city to increase sewer rates in two or three years, raising the bills of homeowners and businesses, city officials have said.
Ward said the position of environmental regulators is that Haverhill has plenty of room to raise its sewer rates. He said the average sewer bill for Haverhill users is $290 per year, but that the EPA considers $1,200 to be an affordable yearly bill.