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Lenders require new regional pact for wastewater upgrades

November 19, 2011

WOONSOCKET – Before it can gain access to capital that’s needed to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant, the city must renegotiate antiquated pacts with neighboring communities that also use the facility, including two in Massachusetts, officials say.
The City Council recently gave Mayor Leo T. Fontaine the go-ahead to borrow the first $26 million for plant upgrades whose costs could top out at $40 million.
But Public Works Director Sheila McGauvran says that based on the volume of materials they send into the plant, neighboring North Smithfield, Blackstone and Bellingham could be on the hook for a combined 20 percent of the tab. The city intends to recoup those costs retroactively from the user communities in the form of rate adjustments, just as Woonsocket intends to pay for the controversial project with rate hikes of its own.
But the project isn’t going anywhere until the city negotiates new user agreements with those communities, said McGauvran. Though the city has been treating waste from those communities for years, there are no valid agreements setting forth the terms on file, a situation that must rectified before the state’s revolving fund for wastewater projects will lend the city money.
The City Council intends to address the issue on Monday when it considers a measure granting the administration the authority to negotiate the so-called “interjurisdictional agreements” with the three municipal neighbors.
A reluctant City Council recently voted to borrow the money for the first phase of the project, which most members see as an intrusive state mandate of questionable urgency. To an extent, McGauvan seems inclined to agree, in part because the city is under an entirely unrelated order from state and federal regulators to build a new water treatment plant at a cost of roughly $35 million in the same time frame – a whopping, double-whammy burden in new debt service for tapped-out taxpayers.
“Nobody in the city is eager to spend this money,” she says.
At issue is a consent decree dating back to at least 2008 in which the city and the state Department of Environmental Management agreed to make the necessary improvements at the Cumberland Hill Road wastewater plant to reduce levels of nitrates and phosphorous the facility discharges into the Blackstone River. DEM says the project must be done by March 2014 – about a year after the deadline for the water plant.
McGauvran also questions the cost-effectiveness of the project in terms of reaching the ultimate goal of improving wildlife habitat in the Blackstone and Narragansett Bay, as Woonsocket is the only wastewater plant along the river under the regulatory gun to forge ahead on the project. Without compliance from other treatment plant operators in upstream Massachusetts, she says, the benefits to the ecosystem will be negligible, and so far, plant operators elsewhere are openly resisting demands for cleaner wastewater.
Still, McGauvran says the city must to be prepared to move fast on the wastewater project to take advantage of historically low construction costs and avoid possible fines if the city can’t meet the deadlines. Though she’s not optimistic about the chances that DEM will grant the city any relief, she intends to ask the agency to relax the deadline or discharge limits, which may reduce construction costs.
“It’s been addressed numerous times before and even the consent order we’re working off of now has been delayed numerous times from previous orders,” she said. “That tells me they’re probably not going to be very flexible on schedule.”

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