12/09/10 — Mount Olive could sue over wastewater plant flaws

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Mount Olive could sue over wastewater plant flaws

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on December 9, 2010 1:46 PM

MOUNT OLIVE -- A problem with the town of Mount Olive's wastewater treatment plant could lead to legal action against the engineering firm that designed it if the issue is not resolved, town officials say.

When the town built its wastewater treatment plant beginning in 2006, the contract with the Southern Pines-based civil engineering firm of Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates stipulated that the plant would be able to pump an additional million gallons of water to the town's spray field, Town Manager Charles Brown said.

But there is a problem with the plant moving water to the town's spray field, despite the plant working "beyond our expectations" otherwise, he said.

"It became obvious pretty quickly that ... it wasn't as efficient as it needed to be. But we weren't able to make that determination initially," Brown said.

The town does not want a court battle if the issue can be resolved without litigation, but town officials did contact Raleigh law firm Moore and Van Allen and met with Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates representatives about the problem, Brown said.

"We haven't actually been to court, but we have discussed the possibility with the firm that designed the plant. In other words, we sort of put them on notice that we need to get this right, or we're going to do something else," he said. "There's been a complaint filed against them, in other words, they're on notice. They've been served with the fact that we intend to do that, if we can't get it resolved."

Now the town has asked a second engineering firm, which Brown declined to name, citing the possibility of future legal action, and the state Department of Water Quality to examine a potential fix for the problem. The town has not actually signed a contract with the second firm or paid out any money, and the town would seek payment from Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates for any legal fees or consulting fees, according to Brown.

To fix the system, the town will examine the feasibility of bypassing the non-functioning effluent pumps and filter and pump water directly from the irrigation lagoon using two deluge guns and hose reels and a portable pump, according to a motion made at a called meeting of the town board Tuesday, Nov. 23. Any additional cost would be on Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates, not the town, Brown said.

The reportedly flawed system sprays reclaimed water onto a field of planted trees. The water, which is not suitable for drinking but is safe for watering lawns, contains impurities such as algae that have been stopping up the filters in the spray system more often that it should, he explained.

"Whether that's something the original engineer didn't foresee, I really don't know. What we know is that in practice, we can't pump a million gallons of water to the spray field, and before we walk away from the project, we want to be sure that we can pump a million gallons of water," Brown said.

Although the wastewater treatment plant was constructed several years ago, the town has only known about the issue since this summer. There were delays in setting up the irrigation lagoons that impound water to feed the system.

The plant has two lagoons, one 28 million gallon lagoon and a 5 million gallon pond, at the spray field. There were problems, first, with placing the lagoons on the property, and later in dealing with permitting difficulties related to unexpected changes to the lagoon wall depth.

"It took a substantial amount of time to get that resolved. They finally agreed to let us put a synthetic membrane liner in the lagoons, and we did, and that's passed inspection, we were given permission to impound water," Brown said.

Because of the delay, the town did not have water in the lagoons to start pumping through the filtration spray system until early this summer. When workers started the spray system running, the problem quickly became apparent.

"What we found was that the filtration system was prone to clog up more often than it should. Like at your house, when you're using clean, treated water, and your shower nozzles still clog up," Brown said.

The project is not completely closed yet and the engineering firm has not been paid several hundred thousand dollars still owed for the work, and so the town is examining the issue before signing off on the final paperwork. The funding agencies won't release the funding until the project engineer makes a final pay request and completes the documentation -- which the town will not sign until "we know it's going to do what the contract said it's going to do."

"We want to be sure the taxpayers have got the full benefit of the dollars they spent before we walk away from the table," Brown said. "We want to be sure that, worst case scenario, we have the capability of putting a million gallons of water -- an additional million gallons of water -- into that farm instead of putting it into the Northeast Cape Fear River."

The problem is not so much an issue for the system's current operations, as the plant is only permitted by the state to handle 560,000 gallons a day. However, the contract specified that the plant should have the capability to handle much more, regardless of whether the plant is permitted for it yet, and the town plans to hold the company to that contractual agreement, Brown said.

"The land was purchased and the plant was built on the premise that eventually, as the town grew, the town would have to buy and acquire additional property to give us that million gallons of spray capacity. But the way the contract reads, it says we have to have the capability of pumping a million gallons of water," he said.

The plant serves the town of Mount Olive and the town of Calypso in northern Duplin County. The town also had plans to expand its service area and offer wastewater treatment to more customers in the region.

The Mount Olive town board held a called meeting Nov. 23 about the issue. The board authorized town officials to work with a consulting engineer to determine the feasibility of the proposed fix. If the solution is deemed workable, the town will then ask Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates to supply, at their expense, the necessary equipment, and all necessary materials to connect same and to pay all the town's legal fees to date. In return, the town would close out the project.

The motion passed 4-0, with Commissioner George Fulghum absent.