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Vero investing $1.5 million to expand sewer plant on lagoon

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of January 22, 2015)

When heavy equipment appears in February at the Vero Beach sewer plant and the riverfront begins to buzz with construction activity, don’t be fooled into thinking the city is finally dismantling the eyesore and moving it from the lagoon to the airport in accordance with previous plans.

Instead, city officials last week authorized the spending of $1.5 million to modernize the wastewater treatment plant by adding a sludge recycling facility that city officials say will pay for itself in seven years or less. Consultants in 2011 estimated that the sewer plant had another dozen or so good years in it, deflating the hopes of lagoon-conscious residents who want the structure moved.

Once the new high-tech sludge plant is up and running this fall, drying out and processing the solids out of Vero’s wastewater, that processed material will be taken to a yet-undetermined regional facility, probably in St. Lucie County where it will be mixed with yard waste and composted into nutrient-rich mulch, Water and Sewer Director Rob Bolton said.

“If you look at our overall savings yearly, it’s $225,000, so the payoff is somewhere in the six, seven-year range.”

According to analysis done by city staff, roughly $90,000 of the annual savings will be in power costs that the city now pays to Vero electric, as the new system is much more energy-efficient.  

Currently, Vero treats the sewage, separates out much of the liquid for reuse irrigation water, then transports the sludge out to the Okeechobee Landfill where it is buried along with household garbage.

“This is a step forward, an environmental step forward,” Mayor Dick Winger said. “The public might not understand, but what we’re talking about is rather than haul off the solid material that comes out of the sewer plant and putting it in a landfill – of course it has been sterilized – (this will remove) the water and make it ultimately into mulch that’s usable for other purposes, which is a lot more environmentally friendly way to handle it.”

The sludge plant, which is a patented system called the CleanB, spins the liquid out of the sludge with a centrifuge and compresses into minutes the long, natural process by which the sludge would decompose. Winger noted that the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority has a CleanB system constructed by BCR Environmental, which celebrated the facility’s grand opening in December. City Manager Jim O’Connor encouraged council members to visit the Fort Pierce facility, and Winger said he intended to do so.

“There are several of these installations around, but we will definitely be in the first wave of cities doing that and I think that’s consistent with our vision of the future to be as environmentally sound as possible,” Winger said, calling for the vote, which was unanimous in favor of the project.

The sludge plant will be fully integrated into the sewer plant.

When asked if the CleanB plant could be relocated should Vero finally decide it no longer wants a sewer plant on the river, Bolton said most of it can be, except the cement fixtures and casing that will be poured, and some of the pipes.

“Even if we ever do something in the future with the wastewater plant, you’re going to re-capture $1.2 million of the work, I could easily say, of the value, to be relocated somewhere else, so your stranded costs are going to be about $300,000,” Bolton said.

Bolton said the project would be paid for with budgeted cash on hand and that no additional city workers would be needed to operate the CleanB equipment.

The sludge plant expense is on top of $3 million Vero has in its utilities capital budget for expansion of its reverse osmosis drinking water facilities and wells, as the city has a goal of drastically reducing its dependence upon more than two dozen shallow water wells located on airport property.

Vero’s water and wastewater utility has an annual budget of $15 million, which includes nearly $1.5 in direct and administrative transfers to the general fund and nearly $4 million annually in payments on debt for various capital projects, including the city’s deep injection well.