By Stefanie Jackson – Exmore is one step closer to a decision on how to upgrade its outdated sewer system, following the completion of a preliminary engineering report (PER) for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which could cover millions of dollars in project costs through grants and low-interest loans.
“It’s becoming clearer all along that we’ve got to be in the sewer plant business,” Town Manager Robert Duer said Monday night.
Exmore was attempting to avoid the costly choice of owning and operating a new sewer plant, but what’s good for the town might not be good for its people.
Exmore could turn over its sewer system to the public Hampton Roads Sanitation District; the town would no longer be responsible to build or maintain a collection system or sewage treatment plant, but it also would no longer control sewer rates, which could skyrocket.
Exmore could also partner with private company Aqua, which would build and run a new sewage treatment plant while Exmore built out its collection system to serve the entire town, increasing its sewer customers from about 350 to 900.
Aqua would lock in sewer rates for 10 years, but there’s no guarantee that rates won’t rise dramatically after that first decade, town council members have pointed out.
According to the PER completed by Bowman Consulting, of the Northern Virginia area, Exmore should choose a third option, constructing and operating a new sewer plant.
It would be the most affordable option if the town is successful in obtaining state and federal financial assistance.
If not, the offers from HRSD and Aqua are still on the table, Duer noted.
The PER recommends that Exmore build its own sewer plant, with a treatment process to include digestion of solid waste by microorganisms, three levels of filtration, UV disinfection, and disposal of the treated wastewater using RIB (rapid-infiltration basin) technology.
The RIB technology would help replenish groundwater in the Columbia aquifer (most Eastern Shore homes use water from the deeper Yorktown aquifer).
The PER also recommended use of an E1 grinder system, in which each homeowner purchases a grinder pump that processes sewage into a slurry and pumps it to the main sewer line.
USDA offers grants to low-income homeowners to pay for the grinder pumps, which cost about $6,000 each. Anyone who does not qualify for a grant can obtain a USDA loan with 1% interest.
The PER estimated a new sewage collection system and treatment plant would cost about $17.25 million, including $14.9 million for construction.
Duer cautioned the town council not to be scared by “sticker shock,” because those numbers don’t represent how much money Exmore would have to borrow, assuming grants are obtained.
The PER’s cost estimate was based on Exmore borrowing $4 million, Duer said.
According to the PER, the monthly cost per household for sewer service would start at $45 for 0 to 4,500 gallons, plus $5 for every additional 1,000 gallons.
That does not include an additional monthly fee that will help pay for the upgrades to the system.
“We’re going to have to charge more than $45, because we’ve got to put money away to take care of the next plant,” Duer said.
The proposed connection cost is $2,000 for a current customer. A new customer would pay $4,500 to connect during the first year, or $8,000 after the first year.
Exmore would likely hire a sewage treatment plant operator. It’s a costly move, but hiring an outside company run the plant is even costlier: $264,000 per year, Utilities Director Taylor Dukes said.
Keeping Exmore in the sewer business isn’t Duer’s preference, but “I’m happy if we can come up with lower sewer bills for all our citizens and businesses,” he said.