The planned expansion of a Forsyth County wastewater treatment plant has been delayed as a decision on what type of filter to use has muddied the situation.
County commissioners gave tentative approval in April, but pulled back later that month. The issue was again delayed after another contentious discussion in late May.
Officials hope to resolve the issue during a work session Tuesday and move forward with the behind-schedule expansion of the Fowler Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The filters, commonly referred to in the industry as membranes, help separate materials in the treatment process.
The county’s largest sewage treatment facility, Fowler opened in 2004 under a “design, build, operate contract” with Metcalf & Eddy, now AECOM.
While Forsyth County owns the plant, AECOM handles the daily operations and receives monthly payments based on the amount of flow sent to the facility, said Tim Perkins, county director of water and sewer.
The more than 20-year contract, signed in 2002, called for an expansion of the plant when the county needed it.
Though originally expected to start about 2006, the slowed growth of the county pushed back the expansion, which was scheduled to come online in August, Perkins said.
The contract laid out terms for the responsibility of the county and the operator in paying for the 2.5 million gallon per day increase in treatment ability, Perkins said.
“They had money in the contract that was being held back to do this work, but the price they got back from the membrane supplier, which is General Electric, was a lot higher than they had anticipated,” Perkins said. “So they talked to us about considering other types of membranes and we gave them the opportunity to make a proposal.
“If they could show us that there were other alternatives that were of equal value or a benefit to the county, we would consider it.”
That’s where the issue has remained since winter.
AECOM representatives did not respond to e-mails seeking comment. However, they have previously said the plant is Forsyth’s asset and therefore the decision rests with the county.
Commissioner Patrick Bell, who sits on the water and sewer committee, said the decision has boiled down to whether the county should contribute more for an investment in new membranes for both the existing phases and the new ones.
“The contract has a certain dollar value that is attributed to the project [for AECOM and Forsyth County’s shares],” Bell said. “Changing the membranes is going to require some additional cost.”
That’s why AECOM brought the membrane issue to the county instead of making the call on its own.
Perkins said Forsyth has about $930,000 that it will contractually contribute. However, AECOM has asked for about $1.5 million in the case of a change out, which would mean the existing membranes would also be a new type on Forsyth’s cost.
“If we were operating the plant and responsible for maintenance … then there might be a little more value to us to do this change out,” he said. “On the other hand, these bidders, now that we’ve got some competition involved, they’re all being very competitive and they have dropped their prices.
“There may be some opportunity for savings by taking advantage of that and buying all the phases.”
The plant currently uses GE Zenon membranes, but Ovivo has said its Kubota membranes feature technology that will increase the facility’s capacity.
Forsyth sells that capacity to developers, and could stand to earn up to $28.5 million if the Kubota estimates are accurate.
In a meeting in late May, the county asked AECOM to provide the numbers for comparison of three membrane types in order to make a decision.
That’s the information that hasn’t come in, county staff has said.
The membrane providers and AECOM have been invited to attend the county commission meeting on Tuesday, when that information should be ready for review.
Perkins said the competition is good for pricing, but providers have been able to see what the other side is offering and keep changing what they can give.
Bell added that the county has also received “conflicting data” from different parties.
He said the continued delay in the decision could be attributed to “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
“The county truly should not be involved in the membrane issue, meaning who the company is, who the rep is, what’s this, what’s that,” Bell said.
According to the commissioner, the role of AECOM should be to present the county with options and supporting data.
It’s apparent that hasn’t been the case, but the reasons for that are complicated, officials agreed.
Bell pointed to the “contentious” relationship between AECOM and the county as setting the stage.
In 2002, the company bid on the project with a cost structure based on growth, he said.
“We had great growth, but then … the growth stopped and they didn’t get the flow that they needed to be profitable,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but it is what it is. It’s not like this is a favorite project of theirs because they lose money every day.”
Bell said he hopes the county can keep “good faith” in working with its plant operator while also making the best decision for Forsyth.
“I don’t care what we use. I just want to make the decision and move on with it,” he said. “I want to use the best membrane to do the job for the least amount of cost to the county, or if there is a cost, the biggest return on investment and that it runs a good plant.”