Wastewater Improvements a Giant Step for City’s Image

TERRE HAUTE, Ind.--()--When Terre Haute, Indiana, got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act, it was challenged to solve the same problems faced by hundreds of municipalities around the country – its decades-old sewer system periodically spewing raw sewage into the nearby river that serves as its main water supply.

The EPA, with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) as its agent, has been aggressively enforcing the mandates issued to 108 cities and towns located on rivers, streams and lakes around the state.

In Terre Haute, a city of 61,000 in west-central Indiana, city leaders devised a plan that would turn the challenge of the federal clean-up mandate into an opportunity. Employing vision, planning and out-of-the-box thinking, they hammered out a solution that meets EPA mandates to reduce combined sewage overflow (CSO) discharges into the Wabash River with the least possible burden on sewage customers.

That solution is helping rid Terre Haute of a long-standing image problem, while at the same time improving its chances for economic development and reclaiming riverfront land for wetlands and recreation. City officials call it a “win-win-win.”

The Image Challenge

In 2000, a community study commissioned by the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce identified the city’s strengths, along with a number of weaknesses that had been blamed for its perceived “stagnation” and poor image. That study spurred community leaders to form a long-term strategic planning initiative they named “Terre Haute Tomorrow,” the city’s first serious revitalization program in decades.

That the study reinforced the city’s long-standing image problem came as no surprise to community leaders, and a communications action team was charged to begin working on that problem. But one area that had to be addressed before the city’s image could really change was “the smell,” and a major contributor to the smell was the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Built in 1962, the plant utilized technology that sent a “rotten egg” smell – hydrogen sulfide – into the air from the points where sewage entered the system and was stored for processing. Adding to that problem, a paper mill and a creosote plant operated for many years nearby, giving off their own undesirable odors. At the end of the 1960s, when Interstate 70 was completed just yards away from the treatment plant, the combined sensory effect offended thousands of passersby a day, carrying the image of the Terre Haute “smell” around the world.

“In the minds of many who pass through here,” said city engineer Chuck Ennis, “the image of Terre Haute is that it smells; that it is ‘a dirty little Midwestern town.’ The industries have been closed for several years now, making the sewage odor the last offensive smell left.”

The EPA’s Challenge

When most sections of Terre Haute’s sewer system were built at the end of the 19th century, the accepted method of disposing of human waste was to send it into the same underground brick tunnels that carried storm water runoff into the Wabash River.

Today, the sewage in those tunnels is diverted through a series of interceptors at the river’s edge and routed to the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant for processing. The plant adequately handles the wastewater most of the time. However, dozens of times a year, when heavy rains or melting snow tax the system, the result is a CSO in violation of the EPA’s standards.

To meet this challenge, Terre Haute devised and won EPA approval in 2012 for a long-term control plan to deal with the CSO problem in manageable and affordable stages.

The first stage is the roughly $140 million upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant – something that will double the plant’s holding capacity and virtually eliminate any odors coming from the plant. This is being funded by a low-interest loan from a State Revolving Fund to be paid for through sewer rate increases.

The second stage is a 20-year, $120 million plan to divert, store and dispose of 91% of the city’s combined sewer overflow without letting it reach the Wabash River. The CSO plan is covered by sewer rate increases and property tax revenue.

“The EPA’s goal is to eliminate 100% of the overflow going into the river, but that’s rarely possible,” the city engineer explained. In practice, IDEM negotiates with municipalities to reach an acceptable percentage for the cost each city can afford. “The 91% figure negotiated for Terre Haute will result in reducing the amount of untreated sewage going into the Wabash River from 690 million gallons to just 60 million gallons annually,” Ennis said.

IDEM uses an EPA formula to determine the project costs that sewage customers in a given community can afford, taking into account the sewer rate, tax and income structures. The EPA sets the “reasonable” cost for sewage treatment (operations, maintenance, any debt, etc.) to be 2% of the median household income (MHI) in a specific community, which in Terre Haute is $33,000. Terre Haute negotiated a rate of 2.19% MHI to achieve the 91% improvement in sewage overflows.

Terre Haute’s sewer bills are among the lowest in Indiana, and with the increases gradually being introduced into the rate structure, those will bills remain relatively low. “Of course any rate increase is hard to swallow,” Ennis said, “but the alternative – consent decrees and government mandated plans – would be even more expensive.”

A Head Start

Years before Terre Haute’s plan was approved, city officials were looking ahead, beginning some work requested by IDEM and acquiring land that could be used to mitigate the costs and offer more options for the CSO plan.

“Earlier administrations studied options for relocating the plant or converting to a different treatment process. None of these was found to be feasible or affordable,” Ennis said. “The option that ended up in our plan was determined to be the best and lowest cost option.”

Ennis pointed out that the plan as approved was not the creation of any one person or department and that much input was considered as it was developed. “There were others at the table as all this planning was going on,” he said, “including city officials, hired consultants, attorneys, representatives from the EPA and IDEM and members of the public. It was a give and take process. Some said it was too expensive; the sewer bills would go up. Some said we should stay away from the river; it would smell. As a group, we worked to resolve the objections and still fulfill the EPA’s requirements.”

Ennis said the city had submitted its first long-term control plan to IDEM in 2004, and it was pending approval when the EPA changed its regulations, so that plan was scrapped and the city had to start over in 2005. “We took our time, and it worked out for us,” he said. “We started implementing parts of the plan before it was approved – ‘early action items’ that we took on at the request of the IDEM, including relining sewers to shore up leaks and replacing some of the oldest sewer lines.”

Recently completed is construction of a new headworks building where sewage enters the treatment plant. That facility’s sophisticated air filtering system, along with other planned changes, will eliminate virtually all odor sources at the plant.

An Image Changer

City officials are quick to point out that sewage customers and taxpayers will be getting their money’s worth in benefits from the wastewater treatment plant upgrades that go beyond the ultimate environmental and health benefits of a cleaner Wabash River.

Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett explained that renovations at the wastewater treatment plant will almost double the capacity of the existing facility, helping the city with economic development by assuring potential businesses of its ability to handle any increased processing demand.

City planner Patrick Martin pointed out that as it reduces CSO, the city is also addressing riverbank clean-up by buying property, some of it in brownfield condition, cleaning it up and restoring it to the natural environment. “The money used for the clean-up is available through the long-term plan agreement,” Martin said. “The city becomes the permanent steward of this property. Rather than making the riverfront less attractive, this is actually going to make it better.”

In addition, the county’s National Road Heritage Trail will be extended along the riverfront from the downtown Wabash River Bridge to I-70 on the city’s south side.

Perhaps the most significant additional benefit is the opportunity to repair the public perception of the Terre Haute smell. Brian Miller, a member of the original Terre Haute Tomorrow committee and a leader in the initiative’s recent revival, said, “Fixing the wastewater treatment system here could be the image changer – the giant step needed to improve on the perception of our city.”

Contacts

Terre Haute Tomorrow
Brian Miller, Communications Chair, 812-232-2875
miller@millerwhite.com

Release Summary

When Terre Haute, Indiana, got the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act, city leaders turned the challenge of the federal mandate into an opportunity.

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Contacts

Terre Haute Tomorrow
Brian Miller, Communications Chair, 812-232-2875
miller@millerwhite.com