September 24,  2008

County planning $7 million
sewer-renovation project

The Coons administration lifted the veil on a massive multi-year project to significantly upgrade the county's sanitary- and storm-sewer network to comply with an environmental mandate to eliminate overflows into the Delaware River by the end of 2018.

Tracy Surles, general manager of the Department of Special Services, the county's public works agency, told County Council that the executive in mid-October will bring forth proposed legislation to authorize the program and revise the current sewer-fund budget as the first step in a "pay as you go" plan to finance it.

She said her department will use reserves in the sewer fund to pay the $1.4 million first-year cost expected to be incurred during this fiscal year. It will then ask for an increase in sewer fees in next year's and subsequent budget proposals.

Acting chief financial officer Edward Milowicki told Delaforum that the requested increase for fiscal 2010 will be in the range of 5% to 7%. That, he said, would raise the average sewer bill -- currently $240 -- between $12 and $16. There would be no changes proposed in the discounted rates for senior citizens -- $50 for those who are newly eligible and $39 for pervious beneficiaries, he said.

Data provided to Council indicated that the cost of the project will increase to $2.6 million in fiscal 2010 and $3 million in fiscal 2011.

County Executive Christopher Coons did not seek an increase in sewer fees for this fiscal year, but said during his annual budget message to Council last spring that his administration would be coming back later in the year with a proposal which would entail an increase. Since then, he and other county officials have not talked publicly about what he had in mind.

The sewer fund reserve stood at $14.3 million on July 1, the start of the current fiscal year. As it now stands, the budget calls for using $5.3 million of that money to cover an expected operating deficit between then and June 30, 2009.

At a meeting of Council's special services committee on Sept. 23 Surles revealed that a 2003 federal-state environmental order to eliminate overflows into the river has been revised to include not only the 2018 deadline but also a $100,000 fine and a requirement that county government also spend $100,000 on a 'supplemental environmental project'.

She said current thinking regarding the supplemental project is to "create a small wetland with an educational component" in Talley-Day Park in Brandywine Hundred.

She noted that the revised enforcement order was issued by the Delaware secretary of natural resources and environmental control and not the federal Environmental Protection Agency. She said putting enforcement in local hands "recognized [that] we've been proactive" in dealing with the overflow problem.

She did not say when the revised order, not previously announced, was issued.

Overflows occur when stormwater floods the sanitary-sewer system beyond its sewage-processing capacity. Since 2003, a discharge point at Naamans Creek has been eliminated, leaving only one at Stoney Creek.

Core of the planned project is what has been labeled in the environmental order as a 'capacity management operation maintenance program'.

Main component of that is stepped-up preventive maintenance of sewer trunk lines. There are about 400 miles of those pipes in the county's 1,600-mile system.

Trunk lines are pipes which convey sewage from subdivision collector systems to larger pipes which take it to pump stations and eventually to the sewage-treatment plant in northeast Wilmington.

The plan is to target 3.2 miles this year, focusing on older subdivision systems and targeting especially historical trouble spots. The amount of work is to be increased to 7.5 miles in fiscal 2010 and 7.2 miles in 2011. Surles did not explain the rationale behind that schedule.

A chemical herbicide will be used to rid the pipes of tree roots which infiltrate through small openings in the joints which connect sections of pipe and grow inside the pipes.

The Council committee was told that roots removed mechanically grow back in between six and 12 months and, like happens with any tree pruning, the new growth is sturdier than the old. A chemical application lasts up to three years and is more cost-effective.

There will be increased use of closed-circuit television to inspect the interior of the pipes. The department currently uses that technology -- both in-house and by contracting for the service -- to inspect between 20 miles and 25 miles of pipe annually.

There all will be chemical treatment to reduce buildup of grease in the pipes accompanied by an educational program to reduce or eliminate the disposal of grease into the sewers by both residents and commercial establishments.

Finally, there will be expansion of a pilot program already underway to control hydrogen sulfide-induced pipe corrosion chemically and by aeration of the wastewater.

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