After decade-long journey, Mt. Pleasant on track for new city wastewater facility

BY KATE COIL

After more than a decade, officials with the city of Mt. Pleasant are hoping to put wastewater woes behind them.


The city recently received approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program for a $6.83 million poverty interest rate loan and a 37 percent grant of $2.5 million to rehabilitate its wastewater facility. The funds will allow Mt. Pleasant to pay off $5 million in funds for a revolving loan borrowed to finance a previously failed project and additional $1.3 million to rehabilitate municipal infrastructure.


City Manager Kate Collier said Mt. Pleasant is eager to provide citizens with a much-needed wastewater facility, reduce sewer bills, and write the final chapter in a decade-long saga surrounding the facility.


“Our sewer system definitely needs upgrades,” she said. “We are on a moratorium for building and under a consent order. There has been such turnover in city staff that we finally got the application for the grant submitted in 2017 and it was on Good Friday of this year that we got the financing we need to finally straighten this problem out.”

In 2005, the city of Mt. Pleasant knew it was time to renovate its wastewater facility, which was built in 1978. The city hired a contractor to build a lagoon and spray field system using the former phosphate mines near the town to store water.


“The city bought 545 acres of former mine land, and they were going to do a lagoon-spray field system where the water would be stored in the lagoons and the spray fields would be used for excess liquids,” Collier said. “TDEC had approved the project every step. The lagoons failed; they leaked. The city had taken out an $8 million loan for this lagoon, and it failed.”


The lagoon system was soon fraught with problems including numerous violations for unpermitted discharges. The city was left with a wastewater system that didn’t work as promised as well as $8 million in debt for the project, including $7.7 million from the state revolving loan fund.


Following lawsuits, Collier said the city was ultimately awarded $1.8 million from the engineers and $350,000 from the contractor, which was set aside to help fund renovations and pay down the city loan.


The city was also facing issues with its water system at the same time as well as turnover in its staff and on the city council. Collier herself came to work for Mt. Pleasant in 2016, a decade after the issues had begun.


“Since then, we have built an $8.5 million, state-of-the-art water plant that opened in May 2016,” Collier said.

While city officials were eager to get the wastewater plant project back on track, Collier said the city first had to pay off the debts accrued from the first project.

“We had to get the rest of the funding for the project,” she said. “We couldn’t even start any projects until we had the funding mechanism in place. We are first using the money from the lawsuits to pay down the state revolving loan fund, and whatever balance is left – probably about $2 to $2.5 million – we are going to use to pay off the 40-year poverty interest rate loan because it is at a higher interest rate over a shorter term.”

Collier said the financing of the facility isn’t typical of similar projects.

“Normally, this is something you wouldn’t do,” she said. “You wouldn’t take a short-term loan and refinance it, but it helps our bottom dollar so much. It gives us more cash on hand to fix issues. Infrastructure here has not been attended to for years and years. We have been barely getting by. This way, we have more money every month and every year we can set aside for capital projects. We will pay off all the debt that exists, refinance, and then we can start using grant money. That should allow us to get all of the plant renovations done.”

Collier said Mt. Pleasant already has big plans for renovations to the plant.

“It has taken years for us to regroup, but we have a plan to renovate the existing plant,” she said. “We are bringing in a new system called BioMag, which is another way to treat waste. As part of renovations, we are also replacing a large 18-inch trunk line that feeds all the waste to the sewer plant and send excess rainwater to the plant. We are able to use the lagoons to store that excess water and then send it back to the plant when it can handle it in the case of large rain events. It will be an asset to us to store excess water. The spray fields will be decommissioned, and they will never be used.”

Matthew Johnson, project manager with Barge Design Solutions, said the design phase of the project is expected to be completed by August.

“The new plant will essentially run very similarly to the way it does now,” he said. “What we are installing into the plant is a process that allows the materials in clarifiers to settle much more rapidly than they currently can. From an expansion standpoint, we are trying to get more through the plant and those clarifiers have previously been the bottleneck. The driver of this project was to minimize how much new construction we had to do and utilize what is there. While we are doing that project, we are also going to be doing other things around the plant that are just general rehab.

The improvements to the facility will also impact how Mt. Pleasant is able to grow and develop, both in terms of residents and business.

“We have the third-highest sewer rates in the state; the minimum bill is $50 a month,” Collier said. “Once we get this project done, we will be able to move toward lowering those bills. Every time we want to build 25 more houses we have to go to the state because of that moratorium. They’ve always said yes, but we still have that moratorium hanging over us. This gives Mt. Pleasant a chance to focus on doing more housing, because as soon as a house goes on the market it’s under contract. We also have new industry prospects coming in on a regular basis. We have to be able to handle their water and sewer needs. It will be a tremendous boon to get us back to where we need to be.”

In addition to providing citizens with a better wastewater facility, Collier said the project is a way for Mt. Pleasant to wipe the slate clean and move past an issue that has long plagued the community.

“Sadly, our sewer system has become somewhat of a running joke among people. This history of negativity is why this project is so important,” Collier said. “There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the years. I’ve always said the only people who were innocent in this whole thing were the citizens of Mt. Pleasant, but they’re the ones who have ended up paying for it. My attitude is this is what it is; we have to move forward. This has been a longtime coming.”