There’s a new destination in the works for Swansboro’s wastewater.
With the existing treatment facility nearing capacity, Onslow Water and Sewer Authority has opted for the most cost-effective solution – sending overflow to a substantially larger treatment facility at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
“We have fully investigated it and completed a lot of engineering studies over the last two years,” ONWASA CEO Jeff Hudson said. “We’ve decided on a path that is the least expensive for our customers. It will probably take two to three years for that to happen, so until then, everything will continue on as it is now. We’ll still continue to operate the plant and the infiltration basin we use in Hubert to dispose of the Swansboro wastewater.”
The Swansboro Wastewater Treatment Facility currently in use has a maximum capacity of 600,000 gallons per day, a limit third-party engineering firm The Wooten Company projects will be met between 2024 and 2027.
“We’re approaching the 80 percent mark,” Hudson said. “If that happens and something has not been done to address it, a moratorium would be declared by the state. We don’t want that to happen.”
Presented with six alternatives, ONWASA narrowed the choice down to three options – build a new plant for the Swansboro area with a $61.5 million price tag, expand the existing facility and still send a small amount of flow to Camp Lejeune’s facility for $24.6 million or decommission the plant, convert it into a series of pumping stations and send all of Swansboro’s wastewater flow to the military instillation for $15.8 million.
“It made sense to go with the cheapest plan in this case, especially because we’ve already been sending wastewater to the base for almost 10 years,” Hudson said. “Any other solution would have raised the price for the customer by a much larger margin. We’ll be building new pumping stations and pipeline over the next 2-3 years and there will be a change in the rates as a result. But it’s a much cheaper alternative to the other ways to dispose of waste.”
ONWASA is already utilizing a pump station in Piney Green to send approximately 300,000 gallons of wastewater to the military installation. The water and sewer management company has been permitted to send the facility up to 5 million gallons of wastewater per day.
The installation itself, called the French Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, is permitted to process 15 million gallons of wastewater per day, although the facility was built to process up to 30.
“We’re currently sending them about 300,000 gallons per day, so we have 4.7 million gallons per day that we have already have access to,” Hudson said. “We estimate that in the next 20 years, the Swansboro area would need about 1 million gallons per day of wastewater treatment.”
The French Creek facility is also currently operating inefficiently with only 4-5 million gallons of wastewater being processed per day.
“They need flow,” Hudson said. “In the terms of utility people, they need food for the bugs. So, they want our flow. This is a moneymaker for the base. It’s a money-saver for ONWASA and our customers.”
The plan to involve a third-party, in this case the federal government, isn’t without its critics. At an Aug. 10 Swansboro Board of Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Frank Tursi voiced concerns for a situation already out of the town’s hands.
“One of the major tools that local government have in controlling growth is the water and sewer infrastructure,” Tursi said. “Swansboro gave that up 20 years ago when it agreed to turn treatment facilities over to what is now ONWASA. I think that’s the worst thing the town has ever done. It gave up total control as to where sewer and water lines will go. If you want to come build a huge commercial or industrial space right outside city lines or even inside the city, all you have to do is get a permit from ONWASA. And the town of Swansboro has no say in the matter.”
The town’s priority is trying to avoid certain levels of near-capacity, which could limit development permits from the state level. However, Tursi pointed out the further lack of control the town will have on its water and sewer development through the current plan could spell trouble in the future.
“If your sewer system is owned by the local government, voters get a say when they vote,” he said. “In our current situation with ONWASA, voters get an indirect say in matters through the board. The base will now hold all the cards. They own the plant and they’ll ultimately control what they will accept. Right now, that’s not a problem. But some future board will have to worry about projects the town wants to pursue and how a third entity will respond. I understand the financial reasons for the decision, and I don’t know if I would decide differently, but there are consequences to this. We’re going to be beholden to the decision tree of the military base.”
The large capacity offered by the military installation is a convenient solution for the moment, but detractors are concerned about the long-term timetable. How long will the flow be accepted? Would future expansion of Camp Lejeune change the French Creek facility’s priorities?
“Can they say in a few years, ‘Get out?’” Hudson said. “Yes, they can. It’s an agreement with the federal government, so they could tell us that for national security reasons, we can’t send flow to the base anymore. But we wrote into this that they would need to give us a three-year notice. We would then have to build a plant, and it takes three years to do that.”
Hudson added, “But I don’t think that will happen. Consider the people who will be using the plant. Certainly not everyone has military ties in the area, but there are many people in Swansboro that are active duty or retired Marines or sailors. So, the base would be telling their own people that they could no longer utilize this essential-to-life service. That would be a difficulty for the community.”
Public-to-public partnerships between the Department of Defense and local governments are not uncommon. The RAND Corporation conducted a study into those relationships in 2016, highlighting shared infrastructure facilities for services such as water, energy, transportation, operations and maintenance, safety and security and emergency services.
Midwest City, Okla., provides jail services to Tinker Air Force Base, which also has a gas and electric partnership with the state. Fort Knox in Kentucky has a utility energy service contract with Nolin Rural Electric Cooperative Corporation, and Fort Bliss in Texas has a public works relationship with the city of El Paso as well as a data sharing partnership with the state of New Mexico.
Email Zack Nally at firstname.lastname@example.org.