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Sewer plant move studied

The sewage treatment plant in the middle of Oak Harbor’s waterfront park is cracking with age and has fallen behind in the world of wastewater cleaning technology.

Moreover, the look and smell of the facility doesn’t fit in with the city’s multi-million dollar efforts to revitalize downtown Oak Harbor and waterfront.

But closing down the plant and perhaps building a playground in its place means finding another way to treat the hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater that goes through the facility each day. And that is an expensive and complicated proposition.

To help the city make the right decision, the Oak Harbor City Council recently approved a $30,500 contract with a consultant, URS Corporation of Seattle.

“Not only do we need to determine the location of the treatment facility,” Interim City Administrator Cathy Rosen told the council, “we need to determine which type of technology will work best for the city.”

Originally, city officials discussed the possibility of closing the waterfront facility and expanding the treatment lagoons at the Navy’s Seaplane Base to take the additional capacity. The problem with that, Rosen said, is that the Navy owns the property, the Navy must approve all plans for expansion and the Navy could terminate the city’s use of the lagoon treatment plant on two year’s notice.

Moreover, the Navy is restoring a saltwater marsh surrounding the lagoons near Crescent Harbor, which could impact the city’s ability to get permits to expand the facility.

The city contracts with the Navy to run the lagoon treatment facilities. Over the last six years or so, the city has been negotiating with the Navy to purchase the lagoons, but there’s no end in sight to the bureaucratic bad dream. The Navy base is supposed to privatize utilities, according to directives from the Secretary of Defense.

Steve Bebee, public works field supervisor, said another concern is that both the waterfront treatment plant and the lagoons are old technologies. The waterfront plant is a rotating biological contractor facility, or RBC, which relies on natural biological processes. The lagoons clean the water through a system of settling ponds.

A maximum of 0.7 million gallons of wastewater — the stuff from toilets, showers and so on — is treated at the RBC plant each day. A maximum of 2.5 million gallons of city wastewater goes through the lagoons a day. Both facilities clean the water well enough to conform to state requirements, but newer technologies can clean water far better.

The RBC plant is aging. It was originally built in the 1950s and went through a major upgrade in the late 1970s.

Rob Kelley, the chief operator at the RBC plant, has strong views on the future of wastewater treatment in the city.

He said the best alternative would be to build a membrane bio-reactor, or MBR, plant at the old city shop at the north end of City Beach Street. It’s a new technology with many advantages. The plant itself takes up less than 70 percent of the space of conventional facilities, has low operation and maintenance costs, creates a much smaller amount of sludge, and best of all, the treated wastewater is very clean.

It’s clean enough, Kelley said, that the water could be used to irrigate the park and save the city lots of money.

“If we’re looking for way into the future, that’s the way to go,” he said, noting that state and federal requirements on cleaning wastewater are always becoming stricter.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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