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St. Clair facing a $9 million project to upgrade, expand water plant

The St. Clair water treatment plant on Cass Street.

By Jim Bloch

The city of St. Clair is looking at $5,750,000 in work to bring its water plant up to current standards, and a total of $9 million to do the upgrades and expand capacity from three million to four million gallons of water per day.

That the conclusion of a study of the plant conducted by the consulting and construction firm Fishbeck, which is based in Grand Rapids.

The company presented its findings to the city council in a special meeting held Feb. 10.

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“Our facility is 42 years old,” said City Superintendent Warren Rothe. “Most of it is original.”

Rothe submitted a letter to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy on Jan. 31 announcing the city’s intent to apply for a low interest loan through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

On March 1, the city council approved a $39,200 contract with Fishbeck to plan the upgrades, a necessary step in the loan process. The application deadline is July 1.

The work

The study focused on six recommendations for improvements from EGLE and 17 recommendations from plant staff.

The state’s recommendations included upgrades to the media — sand and anthracite — used to filter the raw water, improvements to the coagulant system used to fuse particles in the water to allow them to settle out and installing a new backup generator.

The recommendations of plant staff included installing new automated filter control valve actuators and new valves; replacing existing flow meters with magnetic flow meters; switching from a manual to automatic chemical feed system; installing a new rapid mix coagulant system and a backup; upgrading to a vertical paddle wheel flocculator system; adding tube settler modules to slow the sedimentation rate; installing a new vacuum-style sludge collector system; adding backwash pump redundancy; expanding the shorewell pump building in Palmer Park to store the chlorine used for zebra mussel control and a new backup pump; upgrading the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system with one designed specifically for water plants; replacing the electrical system; replacing roofs at the plant and shorewell building within next 20 years; and improving the HVAC and plumbing systems, including installing an emergency shower and locker room sink.

“I don’t think there’s an item on here that doesn’t belong on here,” said Bari Wrubel, the Marysville water plant supervisor who has been the acting supervisor of the St. Clair plant for the past two years.

To accommodate the new automobile plant now under construction on the city’s north end and to meet new residential demand, Fishbeck recommended expanding the plant to a capacity from three to four million gallons.

The work would take one-and-a-half to two years to complete.

Alum overfeed in 2000

Among many other improvements, the work should correct the conditions that triggered the aluminum sulfate overfeed that occurred in January 2000.

“Due to severe weather on Jan. 11-13, 2020, deteriorated raw water quality entering the water plant resulted in feeding a water treatment chemical — aluminum sulfate (alum) — at a dose exceeding certified levels,” said Rothe, in a letter dated Jan. 24. “The change in water chemistry itself is not a health concern, but it can cause the water to be more corrosive which could result in the release of metals from water mains and plumbing systems.”

The overfeed was reminiscent of Flint in 2014, where the corrosive water in the system resulted from a switch from Lake Huron water to Flint River water, not from injections of abnormally high levels of alum. But the end results could have been similar: High levels of lead in the drinking water of residents.

“City crews acted quickly to minimize the amount of impacted water entering the distribution system,” said Rothe. “However, we cannot be sure of the quality of your drinking water at that time.”

Financing

The two main sources of low interest loans are the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which now includes the possibility of some debt forgiveness through the state’s Clean Water Plan, and the Rural Development Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rothe said the loan forgiveness could be as high as $2 million on a project of this size.

The city could also issue bonds to fund the project.

With the possibility of debt forgiveness, the revolving fund appeared to be the city’s best financing option. The interest rate for a 20-year loan will likely be below two percent.

The city’s wastewater treatment plant and collection system has seen major improvements over the past two decades. In the early 2000s, the city did $5.2 million in upgrades to build the storm water retention tanks at the wastewater treatment plant — those payments last another two or three years — and another $2 million project in 2012 to improve the collection system.

“We haven’t done anything like that at our water plant,” said Rothe.

“What would it cost to build a new plant?” asked council member Butch Kindsvater.

The $20-30 million range, said Fishbeck engineer Mark Parsley.

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