County Exploring Options After Expensive Treatment Plant Malfunction

SNOW HILL – The Worcester County Commissioners agreed to have their attorney explore potential recourse in the wake of equipment problems at the Riddle Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant.

On Tuesday, staff presented the commissioners with an update regarding ongoing problems caused by faulty equipment at the Riddle Farm Wastewater Treatment Plant. Expressing concern for the $100,000 in expenses that came as a result of the equipment failure, the commissioners voted unanimously to have their attorney explore the manufacturer’s responsibility in the situation.

“It’s quite a large amount of money,” Commissioner Joshua Nordstrom said. “If the problems weren’t caused by any fault of our equipment the burden should be on the manufacturer to at least help us cover part of these costs.”

John Ross, the county’s deputy director of public works, attended Tuesday’s meeting to provide a summary of the problems at Riddle Farm. While there were several issues at the plant, he said the biggest problem during the last few months had related to the plant’s membranes.

“These membranes were replaced a little over a year ago as a part of the Riddle Farm commercial project,” he said. “We’ve been having problems getting wastewater to pass through those membranes. If wastewater doesn’t pass through those membranes it doesn’t go out the other end of the plant. It’s like putting a big plug in the end of that plant.”

As a result, the county was forced to haul wastewater from Riddle Farm to other service areas. Ross said staff had contacted the manufacturer of the membranes and they’d agreed to replace them.

“Half of the plant has now been put back on line with the replacement membranes,” he said. “We’re not having the issue anymore. The problem we’ve got right now is the expenses that we incurred getting to that point.”

While the final figures haven’t been tallied, Ross said he estimated roughly $100,000 in expenses.

“What we’re bringing to your attention today is that the overrun of costs that were caused by us having to haul wastewater to the different service areas over the last couple months,” he said, adding that the county had also purchased a new screen for the plant at the recommendation of the membrane manufacturer.

He stressed that the plant was now operable but that the commissioners would have to determine how to cover the costs that had been incurred.

“We’re back up and running and everything is working but we have to look at the long-term impacts of this,” he said.

Chief Administrative Officer Harold Higgins said he recommended the commissioners set the expected $100,000 for an interoffice or intergovernmental loan.

“We have enough cash to pay for it,” he said. “How we recognize the expenditure is yet to be determined.”

Commissioner Chip Bertino said he’d feel more comfortable doing so if he knew exactly how much the unanticipated expenditures were.

“Does it in any way inhibit your operations if we delay allocation of this money until you have a firm fixed number?” he said.

Ross said that it would not. When asked if the problems at the plant were the result of faulty parts, Ross said the vast majority of them were.

Nordstrom suggested the county’s attorney explore potential recourse.

“I came from the car business and if we had a faulty part from GM or Toyota and it came in and we went to one of our customers and said ‘we’ll replace the parts but you’ve got to pay us to do the work,’ we would have some unhappy customers,” he said. “Being that we’re the customer here that makes me very unhappy if we’re taking six figures worth of taxpayer money and spending it on something that was caused through no fault of the county’s.”

Commissioner Jim Bunting said there was no reason to make a decision regarding how to cover the expense now as the final costs hadn’t yet been determined.

“Once the actual numbers are broke out, if it’s a loan how will we pay it back?” he said. “Will it be put into the bills of these users?”

Staff confirmed that the expense would be the burden of the service area’s ratepayers.

The commissioners voted unanimously to have the county’s attorney and staff discuss the issue to determine what liability is the responsibility of the manufacturer.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.