Southwest Harbor sewer plant gets $15M

SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Upgrades to the town’s wastewater treatment plant will be possible with the $15.6 million in federal funding announced Tuesday.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is providing the funds through the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program, which can be used for drinking water, storm water drainage and waste disposal systems for rural communities with 10,000 or fewer residents.

The monies will be focused on upgrading the wastewater treatment plant located off Apple Lane that was built around 1973. The awarded funds include an $8 million loan and a $7.6 million grant that will go to remove processing equipment that has exceeded its useful life, replace and expand existing structures and improve overall efficiencies of the treatment process.

“This is specifically for rehabilitating the sewage treatment plant,” said Jim Vekasi, who serves as treasurer and secretary on the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District Board of Trustees.

Receiving the federal funds will be contingent upon voter approval of the $8 million loan, which needs to be approved first before the grant money is allocated.

“With support of the town the project, can go pretty quickly,” said Steve Kenney, who manages the district. “We need to make sure we can fund it properly before we can move forward.” He said the application for the funding involved “a year of paperwork.”

An assessment by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection in August 2016, eight months after the formation of the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District, found the plant was in need of repairs and attention.

“The department has concerns about operations at the plant given findings during this inspection,” the report said.

Some work has been done in the last couple of years to correct the negative report findings, but the district’s capacity to operate and service its customers efficiently are inhibited by the plant’s age and limitations, according to the trustees.

“We’ve responded to every deficiency that they identified,” said Vekasi. “We corrected all that needed to be corrected … Some of the issues are due to the design of the plant.”

And some of the negatives in the report won’t be fully addressed until the treatment plant is upgraded, he said.

A rural development grant for $12,500 from the USDA was awarded to the district in May 2017 to conduct an initial engineering study to determine upgrades and repairs needed at the facility. That study determined upgrades to the current facility would cost an estimated $15 million, as opposed to the cost of constructing a whole new facility at closer to $28 million.

Town Manager Justin VanDongen, who serves as a member on the five-member board of trustees, said Tuesday that it could be five years before the plant upgrades and reconstruction would be completed. Wastewater would still be processed at the facility during the construction process.

“It’s about 40 years now,” said Vekasi on the age of the plant. “That’s about how long these things last.”

Last month, Southwest Harbor voters approved funding for upgrades to the district’s pump station on Long Pond. This announcement of funding for the wastewater plant does not affect that project, officials said.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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