On Dec. 7, the Pima County Board of Supervisors awarded a $172.2 million contract for the design and construction a new wastewater treatment facility in Tucson.

Denver-based CH2M Hill Engineers, Inc., won the contract, handing in the lowest bid, well below the county’s spending cap of $240 million.

The company would design, build and operate the new facility in a 15-year public-private partnership. Throughout the agreement, the county maintains ownership of the facility.

Supervisors Richard Elías and Ray Carroll voted against the plan.

“I thought design, build and finance would have been a more effective way to protect taxpayers,” Carroll said. The Republican supervisor said he wanted private sector companies to handle the full project, including the entire financial burden.

Democratic Supervisor Elías opposed the contract on different grounds. Elías said a treatment facility operated by county employees under county supervision would provide greater health protections to the community.

“Protecting the public interest is of great importance to me,” he said. “I think that there needs to be a very direct accountability from the government to the people.”

Elías recounted past water-quality issues with the industrial solvent trichloroethylene that plagued the Tucson area. For decades, companies freely discarded the chemical into landfills and wildcat dumping grounds on the desert. Groundwater contamination was blamed on the chemical dumping, which later was linked to numerous illnesses and deaths. Many of the issues connected with TCE contamination impacted the areas that Elías represents today.

“You never want the specter of this to happen again,” Elías said, allowing the analogy wasn’t exact.

County officials have said the public-private partnership would provide the same levels of accountability as other county ventures.

“Our review of this issue concludes that there would be equal or superior accountability under a DBO (design, build, operate) contract,” according to an October 2009 county memo.

The contract requires that CH2M Hill Enterprises hire at least 75 percent of its employees from the county’s existing employee base.

Because the new Roger Road plant likely would have a higher degree of automation, with the need for 15 to 25 of the current 54 positions, existing employees would be placed into other county positions, according to an August memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

By the time the plant reaches operation phase in January 2015, many of the current county employees who work at the Roger Road facility are expected to have retired, Huckelberry noted.

In addition, wages and benefits paid to employees of the new facility would have to be equal to or greater than those offered to other county employees.

The annual operating costs for the Roger Road plant average about $8.6 million. Under the public-private partnership, annual costs would be $6.5 million, said Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department Director Michael Gritzuk.

Ratepayers would pay construction costs through a series of service rate increases. Bonds were not approved to pay for project.

The plan calls for construction of a new wastewater treatment plant adjacent to the existing Roger Road facility near Prince Road and Interstate 10. The new facility, on a 20-acre site, would replace the existing treatment plant, scheduled for decommissioning.

The contract approved last week is part of an estimated $720 million wastewater treatment expansion and upgrade plan, the Regional Optimization Master Plan. The total project would be the most expensive capital improvement project in county history.

“The ROMP project is primarily the result of regulatory requirements,” Gritzuk said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality requires that Pima County make the system upgrades and improvements to reduce the levels of nitrogen and ammonia in treated water. The county releases an average of 60 million gallons of effluent into Santa Cruz River each day. State and federal environmental authorities require higher water standards than the county currently meets to prevent nitrogen and ammonia from seeping into groundwater. If the county doesn’t meet the new standard, it would be subject to a bevy of fines and potential lawsuits.

The improvements also are needed to meet the increased demands on the treatment system created by population growth. County literature notes that Pima County is currently the only large wastewater utility in Arizona that does not meet the new discharge standards.

When the expansions and improvements conclude, Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation would have an increased capacity of 4 million gallons per day.

Treatment capacity at the Roger Road plant would shrink from 41 million gallons a day to 32 million gallons. Expansion of the Ina Road facility, from 37 million gallons daily to 50 million gallons, would account for the increased treatment capacity.

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