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County stays put on wastewater filters
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Forsyth County News

A complex debate on what type of filters to use in a Forsyth County wastewater treatment plant came to a resolution Tuesday after commissioners weighed the numbers for nearly 90 minutes.

The planned expansion of the Fowler plant’s capacity triggered the discussions about the filters between the county and its contracted operator, AECOM.

The filters, commonly referred to in the industry as membranes, help separate materials in the treatment process.

The commission’s vote Tuesday was 3-2 in favor of the staff recommendation to stick with the current membrane provider, General Electric. Patrick Bell and Brian Tam were opposed.

The county’s nearly 22-year contract with AECOM, penned in 2002, laid out terms for responsibility of the plant expansion costs and purchasing infrastructure.

Forsyth will contribute about $946,000 to the additional two phases. And if it stays with the current GE Zenon membranes, there’s no additional cost, said Nick Cooper of AECOM.

However, Cooper said the county could also opt for a full plant conversion, investing in the future expansion needs and taking advantage of the current pricing.

“We believe that this is the lowest cost you’re ever going to see for this conversion, and that’s why we brought it up as an opportunity,” he said. “It’s a very valuable opportunity.

“However, you have to decide if there’s enough value to make that extra expenditure.”

That full conversion could take place with either a newer model of the GE membrane or with a different style, the Ovivo Kubota membrane.

“They’re both very competitive, and they’re both very good,” said Cooper, adding that each made offers to help get the sale.

For the current expansion needs to 2.5 mgd capacity, using GE according to the contract wouldn’t be an extra cost to the county, while Ovivo would mean about a $500,000 increase.

To prepare for the future 3.5 mgd capacity needs, the cost would be more than $1 million for GE versus $642,000 for Ovivo, with similar replacement prices locked in.

Ovivo, represented by John Kieffer, a former Forsyth County commissioner, offered the lower price with more incentives in the case of a full plant conversion.

Staff, however, decided there wasn’t enough benefit to the county to spend that money for the future needs now.

Tim Perkins, water and sewer director, said all the savings for that changeover would go to the plant operator for the next 12 years, and the next expansion isn’t projected to be needed until 2020.

After weighing the pros and cons of taking advantage of the Ovivo offer, “We kept circling back to the same conclusion,” Perkins said.

“We didn’t see the return benefit,” he said. “There’s just too many ‘ifs.’”

He added that the county could still change to Ovivo at the end of AECOM’s contract in 2024, when Forsyth plans to take over the plant.

Commissioner Patrick Bell, who has closely followed the issue, had a different perspective.

Bell thought the county should take advantage of the costs offered by Ovivo and go forward with the full plant update.

“I would spend the money and upgrade it to a new plant, with new technology with a five-year unlimited warranty with a $500,000 replacement in 10 years, versus the $2 million with the two-year [warranty],” Bell said.

“I’m having difficulty accepting that that’s the way to go … We’ll never see costs again this low to do full conversion with new technology.”