Council changes direction on wastewater plant



Following months of discussion in executive session, the Liberty Hill City Council voted Monday to change equipment suppliers for the wastewater plant expansion nearly a year after a bid was awarded for construction.

Mayor Rick Hall called for a motion upon returning from closed session Monday.

“I will entertain a motion on Item B, to allow the Mayor and our engineer to work with Mike Cunningham on the redesign process for the Southfork Wastewater Treatment Plant with a new provider for equipment.”

Council member Steve McIntosh followed by saying he would make the motion, and the Council voted unanimously in support of the change.

The change means the City will now use equipment from Suez Environment, rather than from Microdyn MBR, which supplied the equipment for the most recent expansion. The wastewater plant opened in 2018 uses Microdyn equipment and technology, and the extension, approved for construction with a bid awarded in June 2019, was also going to use the same equipment and technology.

Hall told The Independent that past issues with the Microdyn equipment led to the decision.

“We just had a lot of concerns with that plant and its day-to-day operations,” Hall said of the plant which opened in 2018. “It’s cost the City a lot more money in operating expense over what was anticipated, I would say something in the neighborhood of three quarters of a million dollars more annually than what was budgeted.”

The City endured a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigation, but previously announced that it had been settled, the City had been cleared of wrongdoing, and the new plant was functioning as prescribed and up to permit level.

In a number of Council and community meetings called to hear complaints from property owners downstream from the plant about the quality of the effluent, public works staff and other city staff, as well as engineers that worked on the project defended the plant and its operations, never raising questions previously about the reliability of the Microdyn equipment.

In March 2019, Liberty Hill spent $270,000 to replace the 18 Microdyn membrane bioreactor modules at the wastewater treatment plant after they were damaged due to a failed screen intended to keep larger items out of the plant.

Due to the nature of the damage to the modules, they were not covered under warranty.

The screen failure allowed items through the system that clogged and damaged the membranes. In repairing the screen, gravel, some wire and even a piece of PVC pipe was found in the screen.

But Hall said this week that many issues caused City leadership to seek other options.

“That’s one reason why we went to Denver to look at plants. We wanted to look at different types of plants and their membranes, their operating costs, their technology, and the ability meet our parameters for our permit with TCEQ,” Hall said. “We found one and they actually bid on the original plant design. When I pulled all those documents they were less than a half-million dollar difference in cost, and when I visited the plants, their electric cost in plants three or four times bigger than ours is lower than ours. Their water cost is lower than ours and it is all due to the technology they’re using.”

The equipment, which was set to cost the City $2.2 million through Microdyn, will cost $2.6 million from Suez, the new supplier.

“It will be a little bit more expensive in cost, but the cost of operating – from man hours, chemical costs, water – our analysis of that shows it will offset the increased cost,” Hall said. “Just in the last year alone we have done what they call a deep clean on the membranes I think 11 or 12 times and that’s a very expensive cost. The technology we’re moving to we do that twice a year. Minor stuff like that will more than offset the increased cost of the plant.”

According to Hall, Microdyn could not come up with the right solution to the issues at the plant.

“Microdyn tried every way possible, but I really think – and I can’t speak technically to this because it is not my expertise – but I just didn’t feel comfortable, the operators at the plant didn’t feel comfortable with the technology, for the new permit level considering the concerns we’ve had in the past,” he said. “That was one of the main factors that drove us to this. At the end of the day what I told our employees out at the plant, our engineers, Microdyn and Suez, is the City has the permit level we are required to meet by TCEQ and we have to do what we have to do to meet our requirements.”

The equipment cost is separate from the bid award approved for Cunningham Constructors & Associates, Inc., of Georgetown to build the plant.

The expansion being built by Cunningham will add 1.2 million gallons per day in treatment capacity and at a construction cost of $9.8 million. That cost climbed just over $10 million Monday when the Council voted to approve change orders in the amount of $86,514, in part due to redesign required for the new equipment.

“We’re not really changing the technology, we’re buying a different filter that the water will be filtered through,” Hall said. “There’s not a lot of changes that would be needed for the older plant to be retrofitted.”

The plant brought online in 2018 can treat 800,000 gallons per day. In 2019, the City was forced to bring the original Sequential Batch Reactor (SBR) plant purchased from LCRA back online because capacity at the new plant was nearing maximum capacity.

When the bid was awarded to Microdyn in June 2019, the Council also approved a professional services agreement with Microdyn for a maximum amount of $130,000 to provide additional training and technical support to City staff for the operation and maintenance of the wastewater plant and expansion.

The new changes are not expected to greatly delay the expansion coming online.

“It will delay the opening of the plant for a few weeks past what was initially planned, but it is not going to have an impact on the growth of the city,” Hall said. “We will still be ahead of the curve as far as new houses being built and stuff like that.”

Having different equipment in different parts of the plant operation is not an issue for Hall, who said down the road the City could decide to retrofit the current plant with the Microdyn equipment with the Suez equipment for between $600,000 and $700,000.

Fire Code
The City Council voted to allow Williamson County ESD #4 to administer and enforce all regulations regarding fire prevention and mitigation within the city limits, which means the City is agreeing to operate under the 2015 International Fire Code rather than the 2006 code it adopted last.

“The way the ordinance is worded, we will adhere to the fire department’s current code, so if they were to change, we wouldn’t have to change our ordinance, it will always reflect their current code,” Hall said. “It really builds a good partnership between us and the fire department because we’ve got to work together on these commercial and residential projects, so this puts the responsibility in the hands of the experts, which is the fire department.”

There was confusion Monday night when the Council voted to extend the local declaration of disaster signed in March by Mayor Rick Hall.

Earlier that day, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced his plan to begin reopening businesses across the state, allowing the stay home order to expire April 30 while spelling out new rules for businesses that wish to reopen. He also said those new rules would supersede all local declarations.

“The bullet points I got from the Governor during the day stated, or my interpretation of it was, that local authorities would have the same level (of authority) they have always had through this,” Hall said. “Then the actual hard copy declaration he signed and sent out, we didn’t get until the meeting had actually started so I didn’t have time to review it. I looked at it last night and it says local authorities cannot supersede this for any reason.”

But that was unclear Monday night as the Council debated the merits of extending the order.

“If we say we’re not going to open anything up until June 1 and make it more stringent, then our orders will supersede the Governor’s orders,” Hall said at the meeting. “So we just can’t do anything that is less restrictive. We always have the ability from the county or city level to do stuff more restrictive.”

Council members Kathy Canady and Liz Rundzieher advocated for extending the stay home order, citing recent increases in local COVID-19 cases. McIntosh disagreed, but when it came to a vote the Council chose to extend the order to May 11, unaware that it could not do so in light of Abbott’s order.

At the time, a meeting was planned for May 4 to reconsider the City’s order, but Hall said Tuesday that meeting would likely not take place because the Council’s decision was not valid.