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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 17, 2009

Over 15 years
Village plans $3.7M fix for sewer problems

By Philippa Stasiuk

ALTAMONT Fifteen years and $3.7 million down the drain. Literally. That is the time and cost to Altamont proposed by Richard Straut, engineer at Barton and Loguidice, for addressing the twofold problem of village-wide pipe leaks and an aging sewer plant that, during heavy rain or snow, violates environmental laws by releasing polluted stormwater into the Normanskill.

Straut submitted a formal estimate to the village board at its December meeting and later spoke to The Enterprise about progressive ways to eventually run Altamont’s sewer plant with alternative energy. 

“This is part of the strategic capital improvement plan of the village,” said Altamont Mayor Gaughan to the trustees and public at the Dec. 1 meeting; their faces were grim and their comments sparing.

 “This proposal is putting us in a direction that we need to maintain infrastructure, which is critical,” added Trustee Christine Marshall, “and, besides the short-term fix, we now have a long-range plan.” Marshall has been the liaison for the board, working with both Straut and Timothy McIntrye, the superintendent of public works, to address the village’s sewer problems.

Marshall was also the one who broke the news to the board and public in November that the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation was considering issuing an order on consent to goad the village into fixing the inflow and infiltration problem. The punitive measure would also put a stop to the plant’s now-controversial method called blending, whereby during heavy snow or rainfall, some excess water is released from the plant without completing the entire treatment process.

An order on consent is a legal agreement in which the violator agrees to pay to correct violations, to do required cleanup, or to refrain from some activity that is deemed unacceptable. The agreement can be enforced in court. Rick Georgeson, spokesman for the DEC, would not comment on Altamont’s order on consent, calling it an “ongoing enforcement matter.”

Altamont is not alone.  According to The New York Times, which cited data from state environmental agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, 38 percent of the nation’s sewer systems reported violating laws and dumping untreated water into the nation’s rivers and lakes over the last three years.

While neither Straut nor the board spoke specifically of the cost of the Altamont projects, a copy of the proposal obtained by The Enterprise shows that a total cost of $3.7 million is divided into two phases, focusing on the short- and long-term challenges between now and 2025.

In the short term, ending in 2013 when the largest amount of $1.4 million would be due, Straut said that his firm would focus on continuing to find and fix the biggest pipe leak problems.

“We need to continue to investigate where the leaks are coming from, and send TV cameras down sewer lines. We’ve already found a lot of them and have prioritized them,” said Straut.

The long-term plan, beginning in 2013, would continue to take leaks out of the system, and then shift focus towards the sewer plant itself. In 2019, Straut said, the lifespan of the mechanical systems of the plant would end.  For the next five years, the plant would be upgraded, costing the village another $2 million, the bulk of which would be owed in 2019.

Gaughan told The Enterprise that he would like the board to use the proposal to help guide its budget discussions in February and March. “In the first year or two, we’re going to continue to work with the infrastructure within the village,” he said. “A year and a half down the road, we’ll start with the sewer plant itself. We’re positioning ourselves for if we do go under a consent order from the DEC and they ask for a plan of remediation. This is what we think is the best way to deal with the multitude of problems.”

The largest payment in the short-term plan, $1.6 million, will not be due until 2013, Gaughan said, to minimize the impact on village taxes. “You just don’t go out and start projects that cost $1.5 million without financial backing in place,” said Gaughan. “We’ve needed time to understand the data clearly and apply for grants and funding.”

Altamont is hoping for funding from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, part of New York’s Environmental Facilities Corporation, that entices states to improve or protect water quality by giving low interest loans and some grants.

New York’s piece of the federal pie is almost $225 million; $800,000 has already been allotted, in a subsidized long-term loan with an interest rate of 2 to 2.5 percent, for Altamont to plug its leaking pipes according to the CWSRF Instead of following up with that paperwork, Gaughan said, the village would amend its formal application to include the much-larger cost of the sewer plant upgrade.

“We’re looking to modify and recalibrate our application for more money because it doesn’t make sense to have one application in for just half of the problem,” said Gaughan, who also said the village already has $300,000 in a sewer reserve account that will be used to help pay for fixing the sewer problems.

The revolving fund also has a $45 million carrot in the form of grants for state entities pursuing green alternatives to water protection.

Both Straut and Whalen have ideas for creating a new water plant in Altamont that is not only energy efficient (which, according to Straut, is required for any new plant), but also uses green technology to operate.

One idea Straut mentioned, photovoltaics, uses solar cells to convert energy from the sun. Another idea is geothermal energy, which captures naturally occurring heat from the earth and transforms it into energy that could be used to run the plant.

“The intent of the green subsidies,” said Straut, is to increase demand and interest in the technology, which increases research and improves efficiency.  “Eventually, the subsidies will be reduced and go away and we’ll still have municipalities interested in these technologies. Right now, we’re going to have to look at dollars and cents.”

But an eye solely on the bottom line misses the larger picture of why towns and villages are turning to green technology, said Whalen. “One of the things that could be an interesting feature of the village is if we could be a municipality that is constantly pushing towards reducing everyone in town being on the electrical grid. Can we do solar municipal facilities? Can we sell geothermal electricity to our neighbors? All those things could become an eco-feature where people think, ‘This little town is finding a way to do this.’ That, to me, is a way to get regionally, nationally, people to come to the village. It could create a unique feature on the home front.”

Amidst the swirl of big ideas, it will be back to business as usual when the board reconvenes in January, endeavoring to fix the holes in the budget as well as the pipes.

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