Whitehall sewer upgrades: An uphill, never-ending battle

DSC_0616When Whitehall Mayor Pete Telisky learned several Whitehall residents did not know whether or not the village has $2 million in the bank to fix its sewers, the mayor was not surprised.

“People see the money figure,” Telisky said, “and they don’t read the word ‘apply.’”

The mayor stressed once again that the village has applied for $2.4 million in grant money from the Rural Development division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to continue its constant effort to upgrade its sewers.

By 2018, Whitehall will have spent more than 50 years and nearly $40 million, primarily in the construction of the village waste water treatment plant in 1973. The mayor estimated that it could take “six months to a year” before a final answer on the village’s latest application comes from USDA’s Rural Development.

In the meantime, the village public works crews, and waste water plant operators, work daily to keep treated water, pumped from the plant into the Champlain Canal, as clear as drinking water. In fact, George Rockenstire, head operator of the plant, filled a quart vial with fully treated waste water as a demonstration for a photograph. It was as clear as drinking water.

Clear Not Always the Case

Mayor Telisky said Whitehall’s sophisticated “aerated bacteria” plant was not always the way the village treated its sewage and run off. In the mid-sixties, the village basically did not treat waste water at all.

“In 1965,” Telisky said, and DPW Superintendent Don Williams agreed, “the village dumped right into the Champlain Canal. You could see the pipes.”

From 1965 to 1971, the state Department of Environmental Conservation mandated massive upgrades on the village’s crude system. Storm drain pipes and sewage pipes had to be separated and a waste water treatment plant was ordered to be built.

Nearly $38 million was borrowed by the village to build the waste water plant and to split storm drain pipes from sewage pipes throughout the village. The plant went on line in 1973.

“But taxpayers are still paying on that debt,” Williams said. Telisky added that this massive debt on Whitehall’s first giant sewage system upgrade—the waste water plant—would be finally paid off in 2018.

What remains to be done seems simple, but costs a lot. The village is under a “consent order” from the state Department of Environmental Conservation to completely separate ground water from waste water, Telisky said. The cost is a whopping $24 million. The village budget is a bit more than $3 million. On its own, the village has about $150,000 in contingency funds to make sewage upgrades.

“If the state were to push us into a $24 million borrow, you’d be talking a bankrupt village,” Mayor Telisky said. “Luckily, we have a good working relationship with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.”

Constantly Seeks Grant Money

That explains why the village is currently seeking $2.4 million from U.S.D.A’s Rural Development. And that explains why, in recent years, the village has constantly applied for all the sewage grant money that it could get.

Williams said that eighteen months ago the village received a $400,000 grant to work on “sewer laterals” on an as-need basis. That work is done. And when a $2 million grant application through the Environmental Facilities Corporation fell through, the village made its new application to Rural Development, Telisky said.

As it stands, the village maintains an aerated bacteria plant with two tanks that treat 600,000 gallons of waste water. There are 10 pump stations and three grinder stations, also called ejector stations.

Under ordinary circumstances, the plant can turn water the color of mud into clear water, although Rockenstire reported that “Hurricane Katrina kicked us in the rump.”

Trustee Ken Bartholomew, interviewed separately, said Superintendent Williams and Plant Operator Rockenstire were being too harsh in their assessments. He noted that in the past, when the plant was overwhelmed by storm water, it would take a week to get the shut-down plant back on line.

“Now, it only takes a couple of hours,” Bartholomew said.

Mayor Telisky indicated that the village would be struggling with its sewer problems for the foreseeable future. As it stands, when the original $38 million debt is paid in 2018, the village will have met two-thirds of the “consent order” mandates of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The third that remains, of course, is $24 million.

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