Investment Protection

Published 4:27 pm Friday, April 19, 2024

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GATESVILLE – The current effort to improve water and wastewater treatment infrastructure in Gates County has been years in the making.

The Gates County Index sent requests to County Manager Scott Sauer and Board of Commissioners Chair Dr. Althea Riddick in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the county’s strong push for infrastructure funds and to explain about the county’s purchase of 144 acres of land on US 158 across from the high school, known locally as Merchants Commerce Center.

According to Dr. Riddick, Gates County’s water system was constructed in the 1980s and consolidated with the Town of Gatesville’s water system in 2013. The county’s water system now has more than 4,600 customer connections and is currently switching over from the original water meters to modern “radio read” units equipped with ultrasonic metering — meaning no moving parts to wear out, according to Gates County Public Utilities Director Brad Arnold.

Arnold estimates that more than 1,000 water customers have meters that are not functioning properly.

Similarly, the Board of Commissioners heard a report from its consulting engineers in 2022 that noted nearly 40 percent of the county’s water production is unaccounted for when compared with the sale of water to its customers.

Dr. Riddick stressed that high percentage “is unacceptable.”

Gates County first considered expanding its utility operations to include wastewater treatment and sewer collection in 2009 by engaging an engineering feasibility study prior to accepting the transfer of the NC Department of Corrections property and its wastewater treatment facility. The transfer of the state’s former prison property (20.5 acres, located off US 158 in the area between the middle school and the high school) included a wastewater treatment lagoon and 7.5 acres of wastewater spray fields. The transfer of that property occurred in 2011.

Dr. Riddick explained during that time frame, private investors were developing 150 acres of land on US 158 known as the Merchants Commerce Center. To support the private sector’s efforts to attract businesses, create jobs, and provide much needed residential development, the Gates County Board of Commissioners sought infrastructure funding and successfully secured $2,150,000 in economic development incentive grants to support this project as public private partnership. That funding came from the U.S. Economic Development Administration ($900,000), the North Carolina Rural Center ($700,000), the Golden LEAF Foundation ($200,000), and a CDBG Economic Development Grant ($350,000).

All totaled, Gates County invested $5.2 million to develop water and sewer infrastructure to support the Merchants Commerce Center, which was designed and planned for commercial, institutional, and multi-family residential development. A large portion of the county’s expenditures for this project was to install a new pump station on Honey Pot Road, and acquire 83.5 acres of land near Cotton Gin Road and construct a new wastewater treatment facility, lagoon, and spray field.

Today, as noted by Dr. Riddick, “the new wastewater treatment facility completed in late 2018, remains idle, having never been put into operation by Gates County.”

Meanwhile, private developers for the Merchants Commerce Center left the project basically unfinished, with the exception of the State Employees Credit Union, the Gates House (an assisted living facility, the Gates County Public Library, and the China King restaurant.

The Gates County Board of Commissioners acquired the remaining property (144 acres) in 2022.

“This property acquisition protects the county’s investment of $5.2 million,” Dr. Riddick stressed.

Sauer reminded the commissioners at their regularly scheduled meeting last month that the county’s biggest operational challenge is to successfully activate the wastewater treatment plant, which has been dormant and unused since 2018.

Coincidentally, January 2018 is the effective date for the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s imposition of a sewer moratorium for Gates County resulting from the county’s repeated operational permit violations during the period of January 2016 through August 2017 at its wastewater treatment facility on Honey Pot Road.

According to correspondence from the NCDEQ, “Gates County is hereby placed on a sewer moratorium (with no new sewer taps, sewer extensions or additional flow) at its wastewater treatment plant effective January 13, 2018. This moratorium will remain in effect until Gates County has built and certified their new plant permitted under WQ0000267 dated June 2017. The moratorium will be rescinded when Gates County can demonstrate that it can adequately treat its waste and has obtained written permission from the Division of Water Resources suspending the moratorium.”

“Gates County invested $5.2 million in grant and local funds in a new wastewater treatment facility which has never been operated or certified by the State of North Carolina, and it has been sitting idle since construction was completed in 2018,” Sauer said. “Imagine if you purchased a new automobile and parked it your yard for a half dozen years without ever starting the engine.”

Sauer added that since joining Gates County in April 2022, Arnold has worked to bring the new wastewater treatment plant online. Sauer reported to the commissioners that the access road from the gate to the new facility is inadequate and was not finished upon construction completion in 2018. Likewise, safety fencing was not installed around the 2.9 million gallon wastewater lagoon and no rescue devices were provided. The 20-foot-high sequential batch reactor with an open top does not have safety access equipment or protective gear for employees while servicing the unit.

“Mr. Arnold is making preparations to correct these deficiencies,” Sauer stated.

“Getting relief from the state DEQ moratorium is predicated on the county’s ability to operate the new wastewater treatment plant based on the facility design as permitted in 2017,” Sauer observed. “County staff are continuously evaluating the facility’s operational requirements and making adjustments, such as adding a sludge management plan and associated equipment. This equipment was identified by the design engineer’s specifications, but never installed at the new facility in 2018.”

According to Sauer, a key component of the wastewater treatment system, which is not working as designed, is the computer assisted automated controls. This unit was installed as required by the engineer’s specifications, but it is not programmed properly. It has been sitting idle for at least five years and is out of warranty.

He added that county staff have successfully operated the pumps at all stages in a testing mode, but without the automated control system functioning properly, the wastewater treatment plant must be manually operated and controlled by onsite staff.

“These deficiencies can and will be corrected in the near future,” Sauer assured the commissioners.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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