TERRE HAUTE —
Cruising down Indiana 63 on the south side of Terre Haute, you might notice a lot of activity to the east.
Industrial cranes stretch high into the air next to massive hills of piled earth. Heavy trucks, construction equipment and crews of workers wearing hard hats are scattered around.
The work is the long-awaited, multi-million-dollar upgrade to the city’s aging wastewater treatment plant.
With a price tag of about $120 million, “it’s the largest public works project in the history of the city,” said Mayor Duke Bennett. “No other project has cost this much.”
The first phase of the plant upgrade included installing a new “headworks” structure to remove trash, such as grit, sand and plastic bottles, from the wastewater entering the plant.
That phase, at a cost of more than $7 million, was completed a couple of years ago.
Last November, Plocher Construction Co. of Highland, Ill., submitted the winning bid for the rest of the plant upgrade. That bid was for $115 million.
Today, Plocher trucks are scattered around the site, as are local construction and contracting crews, trucks and machines. All the crews are local union workers, said Mark Thompson, director of the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
The massive project, which started about eight months ago, is expected to take two-and-a-half years to complete. Right now, the project is ahead of schedule, Thompson said.
A “couple of hundred” workers are taking part in the project, Thompson said. The plant ordinarily employs 67 people, he said.
The scale of the work under way is huge.
Currently under construction are giant tanks to hold and mix oxygen with sewage, other tanks to store “sludge,” which is organic matter in the wastewater system, and “clarifiers,” where solids are separated from liquid in the system.
The upgrades will also provide a new disinfecting process that uses ultraviolet light as opposed to chlorine. That’s a change that will eventually save money, but was made for health and safety reasons, Thompson said.
Work is also under way on a new administration building for the plant and on a new laboratory. The existing administration building dates back to the 1960s.
The massive upgrades are taking place while the plant continues to handle millions of gallons of wastewater each day. In effect, the city is building an entirely new wastewater treatment plant along side the existing one, said Chuck Ennis, city engineer and a member of the Terre Haute Sanitary Commission.
Once the new pieces are in place, the old portions of the plant also will be refurbished, allowing them to remain in operation, Thompson said. That will allow the plant to increase its capacity of 24 million gallons per day by about 40 percent, Bennett said.
Eliminating foul odors from the plant is a huge part of the upgrade.
The new headworks facility, a two-story brick building with two big air filters attached, will remove about half of the smell, Bennett said. Covering giant sludge storage tanks will eliminate virtually all of the rest, Thompson said.
In the end, about the only time a smell might escape the plant, Thompson said, is when sludge is transferred from covered tanks to tanker trucks, which will then drive the sludge from the facility. Otherwise, “there will be no smell,” he said.
The money side
The project is being paid for from the State Revolving Fund, which is administered by the Indiana Finance Authority and provides funding to cities and towns for wastewater or drinking water projects through low-interest bonds.
The 2012 Sanitary District Revenue Bond covering the Terre Haute project is for $139 million at an interest rate of 2.14 percent, according to Leslie Ellis, city controller. The money to pay back the bond will come completely from sewer bills of residential and business customers who use the city’s sanitary sewer system, Ennis said.
The Terre Haute City Council in November passed an ordinance putting in place the sewer rate increases that will be needed to cover the expense. Under that ordinance, rates increased in July and bills arriving in area homes this month will reflect the latest hike.
The minimum bill, starting this month, will be $17.50, up from $15.21. Next year, the rate hike in July will take the minimum bill to $20.13. In July of 2015, the minimum bill will reach $23.16.
The average bill is set to increase this month to $37.29 from $32.42. Next July, the average bill would reach $42.89 and in July of 2015 the average sewer bill would be $49.39.
Even with these increases, Terre Haute would have some of the lowest sewer rates in the state, Bennett said.
The city had to get these new rates in place to prove to state and federal environmental authorities that it would be able to carry out a long-term control plan, which is mandated by federal law to reduce raw sewage emissions into the Wabash River.
As part of meeting that mandate, the city will also be spending another $120 million on upgrades to its sewer system outside of the treatment plant over the next two decades. Those improvements will include a massive underground storage tank, a storage “lagoon” on former International Paper property and much more. Those costs, managed by the Terre Haute Sanitary District, are typically covered by property taxes, Ennis said.
Improving city’s prospects
Even without the legal mandates, the city’s wastewater treatment plant was due for an overhaul. The plant hasn’t had a major upgrade on this scale since it was constructed in the 1960s, Bennett said.
Improving aging sewer systems is “a national problem,” said Frank Suarez, director of public information for Fort Wayne, which is undergoing its own $240 million upgrades to its sanitary sewer system.
Fort Wayne is reducing its sewage/stormwater overflows into the three rivers running through the city by 90 percent, Suarez said. Part of that, as in Terre Haute, involves expanding Fort Wayne’s wastewater plant capacity from 60 million gallons per day to 85 million gallons per day.
Improving wastewater treatment is linked to economic development, Suarez noted. Businesses need clean water and sewer systems that work, he said.
“That’s critical to any industry anywhere in the country,” Suarez said.
Bennett agrees. Some Indiana cities have found themselves in legal battles with EPA, he said. By avoiding that, Terre Haute has shown it can work well with the federal and state government, he said.
Additionally, the city’s larger-capacity wastewater treatment plant means more industries can consider Terre Haute for new plant locations, the mayor said. That’s because the first question companies ask when considering a new location is whether the local wastewater system can handle their added usage, he said.
“They’re not even going to look at you if you can’t handle it,” Bennett said.
And finally, the new upgrades at the wastewater treatment plant hold the promise of eliminating the last of Terre Haute’s once-famous odors along the Wabash River near Interstate 70, Bennett noted.
“We’re getting rid of the smell,” he said. “That helps improve our image.”
Tribune-Star reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org