The city Common Council voted 6-0 Tuesday night to authorize the borrowing of up to $2 million for emergency repairs to restore electric power to the Gloversville-Johnstown Joint Wastewater Treatment Facility.
Mayor Vince DeSantis described the accident at the sewer plant as “a disaster” that needs to be addressed “immediately, right now they’re operating much of the facility with generators.”
Sixth Ward Councilman Wrandy Siarkowski, a seven-year veteran member of the joint sewer board in charge of the wastewater facility, Tuesday night said the sewer plant started experiencing “rolling blackouts” sometime on Thursday. He said sewer plant officials brought in a consultant familiar with the plant’s early 1970s vintage power lines, which run through old Orangeburg pipes made from layers of ground wood pulp fibers, a type of piping in use before PVC pipes.
“They attempted to reset them, and they would set them for awhile, but then they would go out again, so one of employees was crossing the small bridge down at the bottom of [the sewer plant] and one of the large silver ducts that goes across the bridge began smoking,” Siarkowski said. “So, they traced it back to a vault in the ground, right there, and the wires in the Orangeburg pipe had [been] crushed, and it created a short circuit on the line, and it put out the power, so they had no power coming from the high yard, which is where the main voltage comes in from the main power lines, from National Grid. The high-yard is also where the COGEN [methane to electricity] generators also feed into [the plant buildings], so we have no connection from the high yard down into the plant.”
Siarkowski said the sewer plant has been running on “four or five” electric generators obtained by sewer plant officials.
Steven Santa Maria, the Fulton County emergency management services coordinator, said he was able to obtain two large 50kw generators from the New York State Division of Homeland Security’s stockpile in Queensbury, and tow them by pickup truck to the joint sewer plant at 191 Union Ave. in Johnstown.
“They needed a total of three, we were able to get them two, and they have one rented I believe,” Santa Maria said. “We were contacted on Saturday, fairly late in the day.”
Santa Maria said he put in a request through the “New York Response System” for the equipment and found out “late Sunday” that he’d received approval to use the generators.
“We picked them up at 6 a.m. Monday morning in Queensbury and took them to the wastewater treatment plant sometime around 8 a.m.”
Santa Maria said he has authorization from New York state to keep the generators at the sewer plant for about three weeks, but that could be expanded, if necessary.
Siarkowski said there were other generators obtained by sewer plant officials on Friday, although he’s not sure from where.
“The plant was never inoperable,” Siarkowski said. “They went out and got generators immediately, and it was down for a very minimal amount of time. That’s irrelevant. Totally irrelevant, because nothing happened, other than losing power and having to hook up generators. They have holding tanks, huge holding tanks. There was no issue.”
Tuesday night the Common Council voted to make itself the lead agency for a State Environmental Quality Review “Type II” process for the upgrade work at the sewer plant. According to the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation website a Type II SEQR process is for actions taken ” by regulation”, “which never require further SEQR review.”
Siarkowski told the council the estimated lifespan for the electrical lines going into the sewer plant had been about 30 years, but the power lines and Orangeburg pipes around them are now nearly 50 years old, having been a part of the original plant when it was built in 1972. He said the initial cost estimates had been between $700,000 and $800,000 to replace the power lines, but those costs quickly escalated to between $1.3 million to $1.5 million after it was discovered the Orangeburg pipes had collapsed in multiple locations.
The council resolution to approve borrowing the money had to be amended from the way it was originally written from borrowing up to $1 million, to accommodate the additional costs. The resolution was also amended to change a line that indicated Gloversville was in Oswego County, which DeSantis called a “typographical error.”
Siarkowski explained the scope of the project.
“They’re going to replace all of those lines to get us back on-power. They originally said it was going to take three weeks, but they found more collapses, so they now estimate five to six weeks to get this up and running,” he said. “All of the Orangeburg pipes are going to be replaced. They’re going to be putting in PVC piping. They also found one of the pipes coming out of the building was two inches [wide], which is no longer to code. They’re going to increase the size of that pipe, luckily that’s only 20 or 30 feet of pipe that has to be replaced at that building.”
Siarkowski explained why the price for the repairs continues to escalate.
“The reason the price keeps going up is they attempted to pull [power] lines out of the Orangeburg pipes,” he said. “They said they had Adirondack Septic there with their cameras and they couldn’t do it because there were multiple collapses of the conduit, so that’s why the price keeps going up, because there is going to be a lot more excavation than we had anticipated.”
Councilman-at-Large William Rowback Jr. and Second Ward Councilman Arthur Simond both argued in favor of expanding the authorization to borrow money to $2 million in case the project costs continued to overrun. The rest of the council agreed.
During the special meeting Third Ward Councilwoman Betsy Batchelor asked why Gloversville is responsible for borrowing the money to fix the sewer plant, when it is jointly owned by both Johnstown and Gloversville.
Gloversville Commissioner of Finance Tammie Weiterschan said the joint sewer board will provide the money to pay back the principal and interest of the bond, but the city is required to borrow the money. She said the city will borrow $1.5 million for now, and more later, if necessary, for the project.
Johnstown Councilman-at-large Craig Talerico, who also serves on the joint sewer board, Tuesday night said the job of chief financial officer of the sewer plant has rotated from Johnstown Treasurer Mike Gifford to Weiterschan, which is why Gloversville is acting as the borrowing entity for the project, which he described as “doing the money magic.”
“Every few years it switches back and forth,” he said. “The bottom line is it is critical this has to be done. We had the engineers right there, and the contractors were like this has to be, so we know exactly what needs to be done. They’ve done the site prep.”
Talerico said under normal circumstances the sewer plant runs off of electric power generated by the plant’s three COGEN methane-to-electricity generators.
Siarkowski said he believes the COGEN units are still producing electricity, but the power can only be sent out into the electricity grid operated by National Grid. He said when the units, COGEN-1, COGEN-2 and COGEN-3 were built at the plant new power lines were laid down for the transmission of power back into the grid, but the old 1972 power lines running back into the sewer treatment plant were never replaced during those projects.
“Because they were buried in the ground, and nobody really thought about it,” Siarkowski said.