Wastewater issues raise tensions at council meeting



The collision course between angry residents downstream who allege the Liberty Hill wastewater treatment plant is polluting the South San Gabriel River and the approval to begin work on the plant’s expansion was impossible to avoid at Monday’s city council meeting.

Four residents of Gabriels Overlook spoke on behalf of about a dozen in attendance, with some taking a conciliatory tone as they implored the Council to act, while others were more direct in their criticism.

“I live on the river and you are responsible for my river, and my river is ruined,” said resident Sharon Cassady. “We’ve spent many hours meeting with TCEQ, with Mr. (Perry) Steger and we were assured that this new upgrade of the plant would have the highest specs and the best quality water. Right now, all of the people who live on the river on my street don’t let their pets in the water, they don’t go in the water, they don’t picnic by the water, they don’t fish in the water, the water is useless to us now.

She went on to say she believed it had to be the result of dishonesty or incompetence, and she preferred to think it was due to incompetence.

“Spend the money, upgrade it, get it managed correctly and save our river,” she concluded.

The group from Georgetown came looking for answers and a response to the investigative report issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), but vehemently disagreed with the explanation of the issues by Perry Steger of Steger Bizzell Engineering, as well as the news that the City of Liberty Hill had sent a letter to TCEQ disputing some of the findings and demanding that the alleged violations be retracted.

Following the investigation launched in early May, TCEQ completed and issued its 13-page investigative report in response to the initial allegations, outlining the alleged violations.

The violations include:
• failure to prevent the unauthorized discharge of wastewater sludge
• failure to composite effluent samples (the city allegedly collected grab samples rather than composite samples)
• failure to obtain authorization to discharge storm water.
• failure to provide a permanent stairway for access to equipment and work areas at the wastewater plant.
• failure to properly operate and maintain the facility and all of its systems.
• failure to properly file the proper notice of completion of the plant.

The City’s letter to TCEQ denied the allegation that the City failed to properly operate and maintain the facility and that it prevented unauthorized discharge of wastewater sludge into the river.

“This simply did not occur. The City strongly recommends that TCEQ retract in writing their false statement regarding improper operation and dumping of sludge immediately,” the letter stated.

The letter went on to say other alleged violations would be addressed in future communications. The TCEQ did not comment on the City’s response.

Steger provided a limited response to Council during the meeting, emphasizing that the new plant was meeting permit standards.

“The plant came online in April, it has been in start-up mode the past three months,” Steger said. “The chemistry and biology of the plant is working well, and I am pleased to report that since this plant went online you’ve been meeting all of your permit limits.”

Defending against the allegation that the treatment plant has caused the overgrowth of algae in the river, Steger said the likely causes of the growth are not showing up in the tested effluent from the plant.

“The two main things that promote the growth of algae in the river are ammonium nitrogen and phosphorus,” he said. “The ammonium nitrogen at your plant, you have a permit limit of two milligrams per liter and the ammonia levels are undetectable, so the methods that are used to detect that, detect no ammonia in your effluent. On your phosphorus you have a limit of .5 parts per million and the phosphorus tested at 0.059 or about one-eighth of the permit limit.”

Those levying complaints against the plant cited 53 violations over the past year from the city, but Steger said much of that had to do with the load put on the old plant before the new one came online this spring.

“Up until April the plant was doing its best to treat probably about 600,000 gallons a day,” Steger said. “It was overloaded and the city needed this new plant. When you talk about 53 violations, these are self-reported violations by staff to the state, and they weren’t happy about it, they were doing their best, but we were also doing our best to get this new plant online to take the old plant offline, and the difference is night and day.”

In response to the TCEQ report of the city allegedly dumping raw sludge into the river, Steger said that was not even possible.

“I grew up on the South San Gabriel River so that idea is very offensive to me,” he said. “I’ll tell you that it didn’t happen, that the TCEQ is wrong, and that there is not any untreated wastewater in the river. The report is simply erroneous and we’re going to get that rectified.”

He said the function of the plant would not allow that to happen.

“The only way this could have happened is if the City piped around the filters and membranes and willfully did that, and there’s no reason to do that,” Steger said. “The City has a contract to remove the treated sludge from the plant, so this just didn’t happen.”

To the ire of protestors, the City Council unanimously approved a task order for Steger Bizzell to begin work on the next expansion of the plant.

“The reason we are up here talking about a 1.2-million gallon expansion is because the existing plant is operating at about 670,000 gallons per day right now,” Steger said. “It is an 800,000 gallon per day plant, and remember you have the existing plant – the older plant that is 400,000 gallons per day – that can be brought online again if needed.”

The timeline for work is seven to eight months for the design process, meaning the project would go out for bid in February 2019 and have a target completion date of the end of 2020.

“This is to get started so we stay ahead of the game and don’t end up in this unfortunate situation again,” Steger said.

The order pays Steger Bizzell $690,100 for planning, design and bid services, then $300,000 for construction phase and inspection services.