Neel-Schaffer Engineering presented an updated construction timeline for Hattiesburg's mechanical wastewater treatment facility to the city council on Tuesday.
"It's taken us a long time to get where we are, but I am elated that we have finally set a course and are trying to go down that course and set some timelines," said Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree. "Of course, we're going to be late in making it happen at the date that we're supposed to, but at least we're making progress towards that date."
Neel-Schaffer and the city are now working with Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) to renegotiate the treatment facility's completion deadline. The new timeline has the city bidding mechanical plant project in Oct. 2017, starting construction in 2019 and completing construction in 2020.
"The timeline that we're bringing forward that we're going to negotiate with MDEQ and GRN as part of our judicial order is going to allow the city to have its first construction project in the next 30-60 days," said Nathan Husman from Neel-Schaffer Engineering. "During that time frame while that access road is being build onto the site to open it up, then we would be able to finish the design on the plant. We'd be able to have two other construction projects ready to immediately be advertised when that's finished, and work with MDEQ and the SRF program to find the low interest financing we need in order to reduce the impact on the ratepayers."
DuPree said, "We needed to come to some terms on a solution. Was that my preferred selection option? Yeah. It was, but we also wanted to make sure it was one that was efficient. Not only efficient in doing what it's supposed to do, but also efficient in saving us money."
A big way the city plans to save money and reduce cost to residents is by trying to avoid large fines. The city will not meet MDEQ and GRN's mandated 2018 completion deadline, and missing it comes with a $2,000 per day fine. Hattiesburg has already missed a May 1, 2016, construction deadline, which comes with a $1,500 per day fine, but MDEQ said it has not started charged the city for that yet.
"Right now, we're operating both under an agreed order with MDEQ and a judicial order from an federal judge with very tight timelines," Husman said. "In order to move forward on this construction project, we'd like to request or negotiate more time for the city, so that we can, again, reduce those fines and penalties, reduce the impact on the ratepayers."
DuPree said, "They have to agree to allow us to do this without penalty, we hope, and to understand that it took us awhile to get to where we are, but we are headed in the right direction."
Husman said cities across the country are facing similar problems, but most of them are bigger than Hattiesburg. With fewer people to spread the estimated $135 million cost among, he says cutting costs for ratepayers is a challenge, but is also a focus.
"We don't have 100,000-200,000 population to spread those costs over," he said. "We have a much smaller population, which hurts the individual ratepayers even more. Our mission from the city is to find the most economical solution."
DuPree said, "We're doing everything we can, and we're going to go back and evaluate these rates and make sure that we've done everything we can to keep them as low as we can. But you know, this is probably the largest project in the city of Hattiesburg will ever see, and it's going to cost."
After working with the city on a wastewater treatment solution for six years, Husman said this is Hattiesburg's final plan.
"It is (final)," he said. "In fact, it was our recommendation. Based upon what we were told by MDEQ we were going to have to comply with by 2020, this is the only solution that we feel comfortable with. If the city is going to maintain being in the treatment business, this will them to routinely stay in compliance an eliminate the risks of any excursion or any violations in the future."
Husman said he is meeting with MDEQ and GRN representatives on Thursday morning to negotiate the new timeline.