Sunday, August 14, 2022

Brunswick again asks DEQ for clarity – and funding – for $137 million water infrastructure plans

Though its request was not fulfilled this summer, Brunswick County is asking the state to reconsider how it assigns priority to federally-available funds for drinking water projects.

Brunswick County's planned Northwest Water Treatment Plant expansion and upgrade project to address perflourinated compounds will cost an estimated $137 million. (Port City Daily graphic/Courtesy CDM Smith, Brunswick County)
Brunswick County’s planned Northwest Water Treatment Plant expansion and upgrade project to address perfluorinated compounds will cost an estimated $137 million. (Port City Daily graphic/Courtesy CDM Smith, Brunswick County)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County is looking for answers. And money.

The county’s planned low-pressure reverse osmosis facility, matched with a discharge pipeline for concentrated wastewater and an overall plant expansion, will cost an estimated $137 million to complete.

RELATED: Brunswick County’s pricey path to RO could spread cost burden across its wholesale customers

To help fund these plans — being fast-tracked to address emerging contaminants like GenX and 1,4-Dioxane in the water supply — Brunswick County asked the state this summer to consider changing its financial assistance program. But it never heard back.

So, the county is trying again, and has recently submitted a second letter to the Division of Water Infrastructure looking for clarity.

Funds available

This summer, the state opened up a public comment period, featuring proposed changes to the priority rating system for funding drinking water projects.

Through the Clean Water Act, local governments are eligible to receive low-interest loans and grants to improve water quality. The allocation of these federal and state funds is managed by the Division of Water Infrastructure (DWI), a branch of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

Managed by the DWI, the State Water Infrastructure Authority determines eligibility for proposed projects. The seven-year-old authority allocates funding to select projects twice a year. This summer, the authority funded 34 of 42 “complete and eligible applications,” dispersing $4.6 million in grants and $97.5 million in loans.

The DEQ's Division of Water Infrastructure approved $100 million in loans and grants this summer. (Port City Daily photo / North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality)
The DEQ’s Division of Water Infrastructure approved over $100 million in loans and grants this summer. (Port City Daily photo / North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality)

In a June 2018 letter to DWI’s spokesperson, Brunswick County asked the state to consider adding priority to projects that address emerging contaminants. DWI’s proposed changes to drinking water projects included affordability issues — but did not cover emerging contaminants.

Looking for answers

On Jan. 7, Brunswick County Commissioners will consider sending DWI a second letter. The draft letter asks DWI for clarity why its suggested priority changes were not adopted. “Brunswick County would like to better understand the reasons that this issue was not made a funding priority by [State Water Infrastructure Authority] for the coming years,” the letter states.

The county is also looking for guidance in regards to other opportunities for state funding that may assist with its planned water treatment plant.

Four local legislators are CC’d on the letter, along with U.S. Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. The county specifically is requesting DWI to support: legislative efforts to fund projects that address removing perfluorinated compounds, pending congressional legislation that would bundle unfunded state revolving fund applications to be funded via federal funds, and adjusting the state revolving fund’s scoring method.

According to a project update, prepared by Brunswick County’s project consultant, CDM Smith, the planned plant expansion could receive up to $73 million in Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) funding. WIFIA, a long-term federal loan program administered through the EPA, provides up to 49 percent of a project’s cost through low-interest loans for up to a 35-year payment period.

Because the majority of federal and state infrastructure funding comes through loans – which must be repaid – as opposed to grants – which do not – the county will still eventually have to address the cost of its planned water projects.

The county recently initiated a water rates analysis with its wholesale customers, that could result in new rates for contracts set to expire in the near future. The county’s discharge permit, necessary to complete the plant’s construction, is still being reviewed by the DEQ.

If this permit is granted, CDM Smith estimates construction could take place by January 2020. “Substantial” completion of the reverse osmosis facilities is scheduled for December 2021, according to Brunswick County utilities director John Nicols, with the entire project scheduled to be completed by September 2022.

Cathy Akroyd, a DWI spokesperson, said she will be available to provide comment once Brunswick County’s letter is signed and finalized.

Update: Jan. 10: This article has been updated to clarify Brunswick County’s construction schedule.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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