Berryville wastewater plant may avoid stricter rules, but at a high cost, officials say
BERRYVILLE -- The city of Berryville might yet avoid spending millions of dollars upgrading its sewer treatment system to comply with water quality laws. However, the state's chief environmental regulator says that doing so would still be costly.
Local officials recently learned of the stricter water standards, to be wrapped into a new permit for the Berryville Wastewater Treatment Plant after the existing permit expired on Nov. 30, 2012. The new permit would be the first to include such standards, after five years of study showed that the plant was contributing to pollution on the Kings River, officials said.
The Berryville Wastewater Treatment Plant discharges into Osage Creek, which empties into the Kings River.
In order to meet the new standards, officials have said, the city would have to reduce the concentration of Total Dissolved Solids in its waste by about 80 percent. Doing so, they have said, would likely require installing what is called "reverse osmosis" technology -- at an estimated cost of up to $10 to $15 million.
Berryville Mayor Tim McKinney and State Rep.-Elect Bob Ballinger have said the new standards are excessive, and they fear the added costs of doing business will scare away local industry -- to potentially devastating effect.
Teresa Marks, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, has expressed sympathy with these concerns and agreed that the standards are excessive. However, she told Carroll County News in a phone interview last Thursday that the only way for the city to avoid compliance would be to finance a study of Osage Creek that proved the new standard is, in fact, too stringent.
Marks said she was confident a study would demonstrate this, though it of course would not be guaranteed. However, the research would also be costly. Marks said the average price tag is $200,000 to $300,000, and she added that the situation is complicated for Berryville because of its proximity to the Kings River.
The Kings was placed on a state watch list in 2004, when regular monthly sampling showed it contained excess dissolved solids. When the plant's permit last came up for renewal in 2007, the state required the city to begin monitoring for TDS, to determine if the plant was, indeed, contributing to the Kings River's tribulations.
After five years of monitoring, Marks said, it became clear that the answer was "yes," which led regulators to impose new limits on the plant late in 2012.
Katherine Benenati, an ADEQ spokeswoman, said that the state cannot set the standard for the Berryville plant above the standard set for the Kings River without first performing a study of both Osage Creek and the Kings and then obtaining permission from the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.
For the time being, the state has agreed to extend the city's existing permit. However, it is not clear how long that extension will last. If the permit with the new limits is approved, the city would have three years to comply and, potentially, produce the necessary millions.
McKinney has said doing so would require raising sewer rates, with the brunt of the buck falling at the feet of Tyson Foods -- the city's largest wastewater discharger.
The mayor and Ballinger have said they fear such a move could send the titan of the local economy packing -- along with the many jobs it provides to Carroll County.
Tyson is monitoring the situation. Representatives of the company attended a Dec. 21 meeting between Marks and local officials. However, Public Relations Manager Worth Sparkman declined to comment on the matter, saying only the company was "still in the early learning stage regarding the proposed changes."
Those changes could affect the company -- the entire industry, even -- far beyond Berryville. The salvos here are shadowed by broader changes in Little Rock, where state regulators have said they are being pressured by the Environmental Protection Agency to take a harder line on issues of water quality.
In years past, Marks said, the EPA had allowed the state to treat its own mineral standards as "guidelines."
"They allowed us to assess it ... as an indicator more than an absolute standard," she said.
This has changed recently, Marks said, and the change of mood will eventually affect municipalities throughout the state.
Ballinger was not pleased by this news. Last week, he called the current EPA administration "environmental thugs," who were going to use the existing standards as "a stick to beat business with."
Representatives with EPA District 6, which encompasses Carroll County, were drafting a response on the issue last Friday. However, their statement had not been forthcoming as of press time Monday evening.
Sen. John Boozman has also expressed concern with the changes. In an email statement issued last week, an aid wrote that, "regulatory decisions must be based on the best available science and should not go beyond the agency's authority, as clearly established and limited by law."
They added, "the EPA should build a cooperative relationship with state, county, and municipal officials, as well as private landowners to address water quality issues, instead of using a heavy-handed approach. The Senator is concerned that EPA appears to be on a different path."
Ballinger said he was working with fellow state Rep.-Elect Andy Mayberry, whose business is selling water treatment equipment, to draft legislation that could address the problem on a statewide level.
McKinney has also expressed a desire 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."
League Director Don Zimmerman said last Friday that the organization had not yet taken a stance on the issue, but were "monitoring the situation."
However, he added that he didn't think things were so dire as predicted by others and was optimistic the state would find a solution that would be amenable to municipalities.
Speaking Thursday, McKinney said he hoped so.
"If it's broken, you need to fix it," the mayor said, "instead of putting all these cities through this process one at a time."