Smithfield is facing a costly problem at its water-treatment plant.
On Aug. 6, Johnston County stopped buying water from the town because the water, while safe to drink, no longer meets the county’s quality standard. The problem: The treatment process at the water plant uses chemicals that create byproducts considered safe at certain levels. Smithfield’s levels are safe, according to the town, but exceed the county’s standard.
To fix the problem – and regain the county as a water customer – the town will need to spend $320,000 to improve its treatment process, Town Manager Paul Sabiston told the town council last week. Though it has its own water plant near Wilson’s Mills, the county spends about $650,000 annually to buy water from the town.
Chandra Coates, Johnston County’s public utilities director, said the county accepts water at 90 percent of the byproduct levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“Those byproducts, they form the entire time water is in the pipeline, until it gets to the customer,” Coates said. “If we purchase it from the town already at the EPA limit and then it took, let’s say, a week to get to our next customer ... more of those byproducts could form, and we could be over the EPA limit.”
Byproducts in Smithfield water have been growing over the past two years and exceeded the county’s standard after Smithfield changed the way it tests water quality, said Earl Botkin, the town’s public utilities director.
To solve this problem, Sabiston and Botkin recommend changing the primary cleaning chemical from alum to ferric sulfate. But ferric sulfate costs more and produces more sludge, which is formed when organic matter separates from water.
Smithfield’s aging sludge system won’t be able to keep up, and the town will have to haul more away. All together, switching chemicals and hauling sludge will cost the town an extra $320,000 this year.
Hauling away the sludge alone will cost $270,000, but replacing the sludge-processing system would cost $1 million to $1.5 million, Botkin said.
Looking at historical data, Botkin said, the amount of byproduct started to increase in January 2011, likely caused by changes in the river. “Probably in a year, or two years, this would have come up even without the county’s issue,” he said. “We would have had to address this later on.”
The council backed the recommendation to switch chemicals and haul away the sludge. Botkin is looking for cheaper solutions, but for now, Smithfield will use the new chemical.
Sabiston said he will wait about 60 days to see exactly how much the new process costs. He will then give the council a budget amendment and recommend how to pay for it. Most likely, he said, the money will come from a contingency account or from cash reserves.
Coates said the county has been able to compensate for the loss of water thanks to the mild weather. “If it had been extremely hot and we had very high usage, we may have been in more of a pinch than what we are now,” she said.
Employee comp time
Also last week, Councilman Charles A. Williams suggested the town change its policy governing comp time.
Currently, employees must use comp hours “as soon as reasonably possible.” Williams wants to compel to employees to use those hours within 30 days of earning them. That way, employees wouldn’t be able save up and use built-up compensatory time like a week of vacation.
Williams said the council has been considering this change since the pay raise scandal in 2011. An investigation into that scandal showed that some employees were banking dozens of hours of comp time.
The council will review Williams’ recommendation at a future meeting. He also brought up the change during September’s meeting.