TC’s Septage Saga: What Went Wrong?

TRAVERSE CITY – The strange and twisted saga of our embattled septage treatment facility came to a conclusion of sorts last month when officials from five townships and Grand Traverse County reached a $725,000 out-of-court settlement with the designers and builders of the plant.

But, like most events in this often-divisive issue, not everyone was pleased with news of the settlement. For some, it came as a relief. A lengthy legal battle had been avoided, and efforts could be focused on the plant's future. For others, the compensation was not nearly enough to cover a perceived mismanagement and neglect in the design and construction by the engineering firm of Gourdie-Fraser and the Christman Construction Company.

There are, however, two important aspects that most everyone involved seems to agree on. One, the area needs a septage plant to process the waste created by local industries and the nearly 25,000 people that use septic tanks in the region.

And two, Grand Traverse County and the townships of Elmwood, East Bay, Garfield, Peninsula and Acme now have a functioning septage treatment plant that will help protect our natural resources.

Plant History

To understand the current situation, it's essential to take a look back at why TC needed a septage treatment facility in the first place. Back in the days of lenient and rarely enforced environmental regulations, the region had a prehistoric way of getting rid of waste.

Septage haulers in the region would empty their cargo directly onto farms and fields in the area. For some, this provided extra income and added nitrogen for crops. But these methods had their problems.

Rob Manigold, Peninsula Township Supervisor since 1988, explains: "The septic trucks would go to a field, open their valves, and drive forward. There would be toilet paper in the trees. And certain things don't deteriorate in the human body. Tomato plants started springing up where they shouldn't have. You just can't hide this stuff. I started getting complaints from people that their Black Lab was rolling around in a field of human waste."

As the obvious environmental hazards became apparent, new regulations started popping up. Haulers could no longer dump human waste on frozen ground. Food companies that took local produce made growers sign agreements stating no untreated sewage would be used on their farms.

The last straw came when real estate regulations made it difficult, if not impossible, to sell land that had been used as a dumping ground for human waste. The haulers, with no place left to dump, came to county and township officials with their problem.

The Problems

In 1999, a Citizen Involvement Process decided septage was a priority, and a treatment plan soon followed. The plan included the selection of technology; construction cost estimates and septage flow projections to decide what type of facility was needed. The last of these details would prove to be the biggest source of controversy in the ensuing years.

Engineering firm Gourdie-Fraser was hired on a design and build contract and got to work on just how much waste their plant would need to treat. Michael Houlihan, who was the Body of Public Works (BPW) attorney at the time, explained how they came up with the numbers.

"There are three methods to calculate usage. One of those is to get pumping data from the haulers. We believed that this was the best available method. And this is where a lot of the criticism has come from."

In a 2003 revised Septage Treatment Plan, Houlihan noted that predicting future usage is difficult and based on factors that could change, like population growth and fluctuating usage based on cost ­ – something he feels was lost in the shuffle.

Scott Howard, current BPW attorney, refers to a study by Grand Rapids' engineering firm Prein and Newhof on the projected flow estimates.

"According to our experts, Gourdie-Fraser's fundamental flaw was that they put an over-emphasis on the information they received from the haulers and didn't verify that information. They took the numbers from the haulers at face value."

"They calculated the numbers of septic tanks and how frequently they thought people would pump. They counted on people pumping every three years and, as best as we can tell, people tend to pump in this area every five to seven years."

While it is recommended that septic tank owners pump every three years, that is not necessarily the reality. Gourdie-Fraser designed a plant to deal with people pumping about twice as much as they really do. But, says Houlihan, the public is not as informed on the topic as they should be and the economic downturn helped lead to lower-than-anticipated numbers.

"There are a lot of people who don't even know they have septic tanks. There was supposed to be a public information campaign that, for some reason, was never done. The economic downturn was just beginning at the time we completed the plant. No one knew septage was economically sensitive. It sounds logical now, but at the time no one even thought of it."

Rob Manigold agrees that a lack of public knowledge combined with the economy has contributed to the volume shortage.

"People who come up from places like Detroit have always been hooked up to a city sewage system. Some don't even know they have a septic tank. And there are people that have to put food on their tables. Instead of pumping every three years, it may be six or seven."

And Then the Wall Came Down

On June 18th, 2005, the most dramatic setback of the facility occurred when a tank wall that held waste collapsed. According to Houlihan, this event and the ensuing publicity permanently swayed public opinion against the facility.

"[The plant] was the apple of the community's eye when it was built. When the collapse happened, the barrage of negative publicity was relentless. We were devastated. Here was our brand new facility, and the thing collapses on us."

Blame for the collapse has settled on a large truckload of steel reinforcements, which were intended to support the structure, but never actually used.

"Hundreds of two-foot-long, steel-hook bars were not used. Someone made a decision not to do it, or at least didn't recognize that they were in the drawings. We were never able to determine how that was." Houlihan says.

The cost of the collapse was incurred by Gourdie-Fraser and did not come out of the pockets of taxpayers, but the damage was done. For those who felt the facility's construction and design had been mismanaged and was a waste of money, this was the proof they needed.

"That was a huge black eye on the project. It cost Gourdie-Fraser $1.5 million to fix it. It was their responsibility and, to their credit, they stepped up to the plate and took care of it. But that put the timeline for the plant to be fully operational out a good year."

Looking Ahead

So what lies ahead for the septage treatment facility now? Proponents of the plant say that all hope is not lost. Despite the fact that the plant may be operating in the red for the next couple of years, there are revenue sources out there that haven't been tapped.

A rebounding economy, it is hoped, will contribute to increased usage and plant sustainability. The plant currently charges 12 cents per gallon – among the highest fees in the country. But, as usage increases, officials say that number may drop.

And already, the septage plant has taken in waste from the Bay Harbor development south of Petoskey, a huge revenue source that kept operations in the black – until Bay Harbor recently found a closer place to dump. The Jolly Pumpkin brewery on Old Mission uses the plant, and there is hope that there are more opportunities out there.

Food processing plants and big regional employers like Sara Lee could be potential users of the plant as it provides a more cost-effective disposal alternative than building their own costly facilities. And, as the region grows, there is the possibility of using the plant as a secondary wastewater treatment facility.

Garfield Township Supervisor Chuck Korn says, "There is an upside here. There are a number of industries in this area that are tied to getting rid of waste they can't put down the sewer. It has the potential to save local farmers and food processors lots of jobs."

For now, there is still the problem of covering costs and paying back the $7.8 million bond taken out to pay for the plant's construction. So far, a $40 assessment on septic tank owners has been refused, and the usage fees at the plant will hold steady until operations can be reevaluated in the fall of this year. One option is to use the $725,000 settlement money to defray operations shortcomings in the coming years.

With legal battles – for the time being, anyway – a thing of the past, officials now have to decide on the best way to use the treatment facility.

"All of our time has been spent on lawsuits," says Korn. "We have the plant. It is not going anywhere. Now that we've been operating it for a few years, we know where the problems are and, hopefully, we can start addressing those." BN