By Rob Glidden
After years of wondering how Southington could manage the difficult and expensive task of managing phosphorous in the town’s wastewater, officials say 2013 could begin with some more progress on this issue.
The town has been nervous about the phosphorous question since 2009, when officials learned of the mandate, conceived by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) but administered in Connecticut by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). In response to a previous mandate involving nitrogen, the town spent over $14 million construction a denitrification plant. Depending on the standards enforced by the EPA, the phosphorous treatment had the potential to be even more expensive.
The financial impact of the mandate on the town depended on how extensively the EPA would require towns to remove the phosphorous from the water. In the initial discussions, it was speculated that for about $50,000, the denitrification plant could be modified to treat phosphorous in addition to nitrogen. This would bring the phosphorous levels down to .7 milligrams per liter. However, the EPA had a tougher standard in mind – .2 milligrams per liter.
The numerical difference was only five tenths of a percent, but the fiscal difference was massive. Town Manager Garry Brumback said this outcome would cost the town $20-30 million in capital costs and about $500,000 each year afterward to maintain it. Faced with a potential cost burden that looked disastrous, the council voted last year to allow Southington to enter into a coalition with other area towns and hire the services of a lobbyist to help with the ongoing efforts to reduce the impact of an environmental mandate concerning phosphorous in the Quinnipiac River.
The effort appears to have made some strides in the town’s favor since the potential deal on the table would allow the town to go forward with the cheaper .7 standard. The DEEP would issue Southington a permit that would be in effect for five years, and during this time the environmental agencies will research the phosphorous issue further to come to a conclusion on the final standard.
Town Council Chairman John Dobbins said those interim permits could be coming soon.
“We’re expecting interim permits for the phosphorous sometime during the first quarter,” he said.
This relief from the tougher standard may only be temporary. If the EPA’s additional research brings the agency to the conclusion that .2 is the proper standard, Southington will have to face this issue again.
It is also possible that the EPA could decide on another standard between those two numbers, which would be more expensive for Southington but not to the same degree.
However, since the possibility of a deal was made public in October, officials have expressed relief and some surprise that the conversation with the EPA had made a positive difference.
“It’s not totally final yet,” Brumback said. “We’ve worked out a lot of the language and we will hopefully get that draft permit in the next 30 to 60 days. I’m grateful for that.”