Berryville gets ready for an ADEQ battle; new wastewater treatment enforcement could cost city $10M-$15M

Friday, December 28, 2012

BERRYVILLE -- A proposal by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to enforce stricter water quality standards at the Berryville wastewater treatment plant could cost the city millions of dollars, local and state officials say.

The gloomy outlook resulted from a Dec. 21 meeting between Mayor Tim McKinney and ADEQ Director Teresa Marks.

Also present at that meeting were Green Forest Mayor Charles Reece; state Rep.-Elect Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville; representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor and John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack; and officials with Tyson Foods.

The elected officials and industry leaders had gathered to discuss new limits on Total Dissolved Solids -- a measure of the material dissolved in water. The stricter enforcement by ADEQ will require the plant to reduce the concentration of solids discharged into Osage Creek by about 80 percent -- to 150 parts per million -- and it will eventually impact every municipality in the state.

Calls to ADEQ headquarters in Little Rock went unanswered Thursday afternoon after local officials announced the forthcoming changes in a mid-day City Council meeting. However, Ballinger and McKinney contend that the standards are unnecessary and unreasonable and could have catastrophic economic consequences for Berryville -- and for all of Arkansas.

The new requirements were to be wrapped into the Berryville plant's updated wastewater permit, which would have taken effect on Nov. 30, and the city would have been given three years to comply. However, ADEQ has extended that deadline until some resolution is reached.

The problem, McKinney and Ballinger contend, is that the proposed standards are excessive. They point out that no other state has similar rules and that the Environmental Protection Agency's own recommendations require drinking water to meet the standard of 500 ppm -- far higher than the strict regulations ADEQ is proposing now.

According to the World Health Organization, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that dissolved solids harm humans directly.

Excess dissolved solids can reduce water clarity, block photosynthesis, and raise water temperature -- factors which combine to deplete the oxygen content of streams and harm aquatic life. However, the mayor explained that these effects normally occur only at much higher concentrations.

In addition to the questions of necessity and fairness, complying with the mandate could be very costly. The men said the only proven way to remove Total Dissolved Solids is through reverse osmosis.

After some research, McKinney estimates it would cost $10 million to $15 million to retrofit the Berryville plant with the necessary technology to meet the new standards being proposed.

The mayor said the city would likely be forced to pass these costs on to Tyson, a move that he and Ballinger said would almost certainly send the titan of the local economy packing. Tyson employs several thousand at its Berryville and Green Forest plants, and a total of over 23,000 at its plants across the state -- all of which would be affected negatively by the new, stricter standards.

Ballinger said he didn't know if the cost of compliance would exceed the cost of relocating for Tyson, but he didn't want to find out.

"Tyson may be so tied in to Berryville that they're not going to relocate," he noted.

However, he added that the proposed regulations would be one in a long list of costs to businesses in the state. The standards, he said, may end up being the "straw that broke the camel's back" and send the company running to neighboring states with less-stringent laws.

"If you bill Tyson in every little community that they're at for $500,000, they will relocate," he said. "I guarantee you there'll be places in Arkansas where they will leave."

The standards are not technically new. Officials said they had been on the books since the 1970s. But they are only now being enforced.

According to McKinney and Ballinger, Marks, in her meeting with them on Dec. 21, acknowledged the standards were "not practical" and "almost unattainable," but she said her hands were tied because the Environmental Protection Agency had demanded the state begin enforcing its own standards.

Ballinger blamed the current EPA administration, whom he characterized as "environmental thugs."

"They are going to use that (rule) as a stick to beat business with," he said.

The state could change the standards if it could be shown that they are excessive. However, Marks told officials at the meeting that to do so would require her agency to conduct extensive research, for which the funding was simply unavailable.

Ballinger said he was working with fellow state Rep.-Elect Andy Mayberry, whose business is selling water treatment equipment, to draft legislation that could provide that funding.

The alternative, Ballinger said, was for each individual municipality to pay for its own study, and, even then, officials said they weren't certain this would guarantee variance.

McKinney said Fayetteville was currently pursuing this route. With work ongoing, the city had already spent more than $300,000, he said.

At the Dec. 21 meeting, Marks indicated a willingness to compromise. McKinney said she told him the standards would be relaxed from the initial demand of 150 ppm, though she was reluctant to exceed 500 ppm.

During its discussion on Thursday, City Council members and the mayor agreed that the city should not accept any new Total Dissolved Solids limits -- not even 500 ppm.

The mayor's strategy is to build a united front against the changes. In a Dec. 3 email addressed to Pea Ridge Mayor Jackie Crabtree, first vice president of the Arkansas Municipal League, and AML Director Don Zimmerman, McKinney requested solidarity, writing:

"I would like to request that the Municipal League look at this issue and see if there would be support in asking ADEQ to put a three- to five-year hold on the TDS limit until studies can be completed that show (whether) TDS is something that should even be considered in the permitting process."

AML officials did not return calls seeking comment Thursday afternoon. However, the mayor said they had expressed a desire to address the issue.

CCN placed calls for comment to the offices of Womack, Pryor, Boozman, Reece, and Tyson Foods. However, as of press time early Friday, no response had been received from any of these.

Watch future editions of CCN and for developments on this story as it continues to unfold.

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