As the King George County Service Authority has been plumbing the depths of its problems—and so far, it needs about $15 million worth of repairs and replacements—a story illustrates how things got to this point.
Mike Bennett, chairman of the Service Authority Board of Directors, heard it at a recent meeting with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Enforcement officials said the “problem with the culture” of the King George Authority goes back to the 1990s, Bennett said, when the Service Authority built a wastewater treatment plant without getting a permit from the DEQ.
“They first found out about the facility after it was built,” Bennett told his fellow board members. “And they’re still talking about it and shaking their heads 20 years later.”
The state agency regulates pollution limits to protect air, water and land. It imposes hefty fines when those limits are violated because of the threat posed by wastewater and chemicals being discharged into streams and waterways.
The Service Authority exhibited a similar do-as-it-pleases pattern through 2018, when DEQ notified management repeatedly about violations at King George wastewater treatment plants. No one responded to the notices or corrected the problems, which ultimately resulted in $82,000 in fines, until the former manager was replaced in June.
An interim general manager brought an array of operational problems to the board in August, describing a department devoid of management and oversight. One of the most shocking reports noted that some equipment for needed improvements had never been taken out of boxes and installed.
The laundry list has continued to grow since November, when new General Manager Jonathon Weakley took over with “a steady hand on the wheel,” Bennett said.
Weakley, who worked on water systems in Culpeper and Warrenton and is a member of the Madison County Board of Supervisors, is trying to restore the Service Authority’s good name by being “open and transparent.”
DEQ enforcement officials confirmed that Weakley communicates regularly with them. “There is good progress being made, and they are seeing huge improvements in compliance,” said Ann Regn in DEQ’s communication office.
‘SEE THE HORROR’
Weakley recently led a tour of the Service Authority’s most pressing problem, the well house at Ninde’s Store on State Route 205.
“Now you get to see the horror we’ve been talking about,” he said.
Tucked behind two ramblers in a fenced-in lot, the facility serves the authority’s smallest system, with 36 connections. But it has the biggest amount of dilapidation. The water storage tank is so corroded, because it hasn’t been flushed regularly inside or painted outside, that anyone touching it in a certain spot can feel water.
Dean Hoagland, the authority’s utility crew leader, was certain a small patch of rust was all that kept water from pouring through the tank, but Weakley asked him to not press the point, literally.
The well house ceiling is moldy, the roof has deteriorated and the foundation is weakened. Weakley suggests the building be replaced with a new, prefabricated facility and new tanks that could cost up to $200,000.
The cost isn’t even included in the $15 million price tag. Because the Ninde’s Store need is so dire, the county’s Board of Supervisors has agreed tentatively to cover it.
Officials also hope state grants may help with the most expensive project on the list, but they must figure out a way to pay for the rest without “grossly affecting customers,” Weakley said.
King George customers already pay some of the highest rates in the state, primarily because of fees on water and sewer bills for the $30 million in debt the authority already has.
$10 MILLION PROJECT
The Service Authority didn’t have any idea about the shape of its facilities until it paid consultants to take a look. The first phase of a utility master plan by the engineering firm, Wiley & Wilson, shows problems above ground with King George’s nine water systems and five wastewater treatment plants, which have 35 sewage pump stations feeding into them.
Weakley is quick to point out that the consultants haven’t “turned over every rock,” suggesting there probably will be more issues discovered.
The biggest chunk—$10 million of the $15 million estimate—would go toward taking two of the oldest systems out of service. Wastewater treatment plants at Purkins Corner and Oakland Park are “reaching the end of their useful life,” reported Draper Aden Associates.
The consultants looked at decommissioning the plants and rerouting their wastewater flows to the newer facility at Hopyard, which is under capacity. It’s an expensive proposition, mainly because of the cost of installing new water mains.
The report points out the decommissioning could cost $9.5 million to $11.4 million, but that the action would save the Service Authority $13.4 million over 20 years because of improved efficiency.
When Service Authority members heard estimates in March, Bennett said he thought “we had time to figure out to pay for it.” But at a recent Local Government Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Supervisor Ruby Brabo, who is also on both the Service Authority Board of Directors and the advisory committee, learned otherwise.
One of Gov. Ralph Northam’s goals is decomissioning wastewater plants that can’t reach desired functions, an action that could start within 18 to 24 months, she said.
Brabo also shared information about a bill that provides funds for up to half the cost of projects. Bennett thanked Brabo for the information, and Weakley pledged to look into the grant.
“It changes dramatically what we’re doing,” Bennett said.
‘KIND OF A MYSTERY’
Of the other $5 million in needs, some are similar to the problems at Ninde’s Store and include corroded pipes, tanks that haven’t been flushed or inspected regularly and repairs to pump houses and electrical systems. Most of them pertain to water systems.
“We have neglected repairs and maintenance for many years and those particular bills are coming due,” Bennett said.
There are at least two costly issues with wastewater plants.
One is building a new facility for “dewatering” solid waste, or removing the liquid, so the remaining sludge can be disposed at the landfill. Currently, there’s only one plant in the county, at Dahlgren, that can do that.
Consultants, as well as state and federal officials, recommend having a second facility, should the first one break down. A new plant would cost $2 million.
Then there’s the problem of the 35 stations that pump sewage to the five wastewater treatment plants. Thirty-one don’t meet DEQ regulations. Many lack required backup generators and alarm systems that would alert officials to power failures before raw sewage spewed into the street, Bennett said.
Standards are even higher for localities close to water, including King George, which is situated between the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers.
In addition, at least six pump stations are in the 100-year floodplain, County Administrator Neiman Young reported. Maps for the floodplain, where experts predict a storm so severe it happens only once a century, were redrawn in recent years, and that’s how one of the stations ended up within the boundaries.
The others were built in existing floodplains, Young said, which caused Brabo to gasp.
“We don’t know what they were thinking back then, right?” she said.
Bennett said he knows of a few pump stations so close to the water, there’s no way they couldn’t be in a floodplain. He was mystified, once more, by the previous way of doing things.
“The Service Authority hasn’t been in compliance since the dawn of time,” he said. “It’s kind of a mystery.”
‘GOOD FOR ALL CITIZENS’
As consultants have presented their findings and Weakley has noted in-house progress, Service Authority members have stressed that it takes time—not to mention money—to turn around such a big ship.
“We’re trying our best to bring it back to where it’s good for all citizens, to try to get it back so everyone has good sewer and water service,” said Cathy Binder, who’s gotten quite an education since she became the authority’s vice-chair this year. “I never thought I would learn so much about what happens before you turn on the tap and after you flush.”
Bennett, a retired lawyer with the Department of Veterans Affairs, asked Weakley how his experiences with other water and sewer systems compare with what he sees in King George.
“As a former attorney, I think you’re leading the witness,” Weakley quipped, then went on to say that every utility has needs particularly as infrastructure ages.
Most have a list this big, he said, holding his fingers a few inches apart.
When he demonstrated the size of King George’s list, he held his hands apart several feet.