City eyes $9.3 million sewer plant project

Lower limits for mercury after two high flow events

by Tom Coombe
Ely city officials are moving ahead with a better than $9 million project at the wastewater treatment plant.
A public hearing held Wednesday offered more details about a project that has been in the works for years.
And despite the hefty price tag, current estimates show the project would not significantly impact utility rates.
Harold Langowski, the city’s operations director and clerk/treasurer, said that a combination of grant funds and retiring debt will minimize the hit to Ely residents and business owners.
Langowski told city council members that the project could result in a rate increase of as little as $1 a month over 20 years.
That’s because the city is in line to receive as much as $7 million in state grant funding for the project, with about $2.2 million in low-interest loans also part of the equation.
But Langowski said current debt payments of over $165,000 per year will be retired next year.
“You look at this number with the same debt service we have, and you’re looking at right around a dollar a month over 20 years,” said Langowski.
Without the retiring debt, the city would be looking at raising rates by $6 per month to make loan payments on the capital project, required in part because of a change in mercury discharge limits as well as the condition of a plant that’s about 50 years old.
“Timing is everything on this,” said Langowski. “Now is the time to make these improvements. We did get this mercury limit and a lot of the other improvements we are looking at have to be made no matter what. A light, a roof, a generator. We have things that are 50 years old or at least over 40.”
New mercury limits were incorporated into the most recent permit for Ely’s wastewater treatment facility.
To accommodate for two high-flow events that put the city over the limits, the city was required to develop a mitigation plan, which was launched more than a year ago with the assistance of Hibbing engineering firm JPJ.
The firm subcontracted Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services, which came up with several potential options and settled on a plan that addresses both mercury control and facility improvements and estimated capital costs of $6,194,400.
Construction contingencies and “undeveloped design details” add over $1.5 million in estimated construction costs and a 20 percent set aside for engineering, administration and legal fees brings the total bill to $9,291,600.
Council member Paul Kess voiced some concern over the contingencies.
“For a $6 million plan to have another million-and-a-half of unknowns seems pretty high,” said Kess.
Project manager Jayme Klecker of Advanced Engineering and Environmental Services cautioned that the project had not yet been bid and said “until it’s bid it’s difficult to have a great idea” of final costs.
“Anytime you go into a treatment plant there are a lot of unknowns,” he said, defending the typical set-asides for contingencies.
It’s been about 20 years since the last major project at the treatment facility, and Langowski praised city staff including plant operator Mick Shusta for continued maintenance.
“Our operators do a great job of keeping it going as long as possible,” said Langowski.
If all goes as planned, the project would be in the design phase until next January, followed by bidding and then a 15-month construction phase starting in April, 2021, with project completion set for the summer of 2022.
Langowski said the plant “has significant amount of capacity left,” and could accommodate future growth in the city.
Council members held the public hearing with members of the Ely Utilities Commission, and the session went forward without any resident seeking to make comment.
The council’s Heidi Omerza said she was looking forward to the completion of the project, adding “instead of a ribbon cutting, will we have a toilet paper cutting?”