ST. JOSEPH – St. Joseph residents will be paying higher sanitary sewer bills for the next 20 years to pay for higher costs associated with an ammonia discharge from the University of Illinois' Abbott Power Plant.
The village had saved $850,000 from sewer revenues and hookup fees to pay for a planned expansion of St. Joseph's 23-year-old sewer plant along the Salt Fork River.
Last year the St. Joseph Village Board increased hookup fees from $400 to $1,500 to help pay for the project.
Mayor B.J. Hackler said the expansion of the sewer plant is necessary because the village is adding about 50 homes every year.
"We need greater sewer capacity to serve the families who are moving to our community," Hackler said.
Consulting engineer Terry Boyer said the current plant, capable of treating 42,000 gallons of sewage per day, is at 82 percent of its capacity. He said the village will need 56,000 gallons of capacity to meet the needs of projected growth.
But the village board's plans for upgrading the plan changed dramatically after the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency began investigating an ammonia spill that killed about 135,000 fish upstream in Urbana in July 2002.
Ammonia compounds from the Abbott Power Plant reached the Urbana and Champaign Sanitary District treatment plant in higher concentrations than the plant could control. As a result, those compounds were dumped into the river, killing 31 species of fish, according to Illinois EPA documents.
According to a complaint filed by the Illinois attorney general's office against the sanitary district and the UI, the cleaning process generated "a significant quantity of wastewater ... which had high concentrations of ammonia and a high pH."
IEPA spokeswoman Maggie Carson said the pollutants from the 2002 spill in Urbana caused her agency to declare the Salt Fork an impaired waterway.
Since the St. Joseph sewer plant also discharges into the Salt Fork, Carson said the state is requiring the plant to meet higher standards.
The village board then asked Boyer to design a new plant next to the existing plant. The proposed facility will add chemicals to reduce the phosphorous content and add aeration to reduce the ammonia content, Hackler said.
The additional treatment also increased the sewer plant's cost from $850,000 to $2,887,700.
"It was quite a sticker shock to get the new estimate," Hackler said. "At least this one will satisfy the Illinois EPA, so we're proceeding with it."
Hackler said the village will submit an application for the proposed plant on Dec. 20, which is the next date the state is accepting such applications. The EPA is expected to announce whether the application has been accepted by March 2006.
Hackler said the village board will advertise for bids that month and open them in April 2006. He anticipates construction starting in May 2006, with the plant opening by September 2007.
By the time construction is ready to begin, Hackler said the village will have saved $1 million toward the new plant.
The village will then take out a 20-year loan from the Illinois EPA at 2 percent interest.
Hackler said the village intends to pay off the loan with revenue bonds. Money to pay off the loan will come from higher sewer rates, approved earlier this year by the village board.
According to Hackler, the average bimonthly residential sewer bill rose from $45 to $50 in the winter and from $60 to $65 in the summer.
"That extra $5 you are paying will cover the additional costs for the larger plant," Hackler said. "If not for the ammonia spill in Urbana, our costs would have been much lower, and our residents wouldn't have to pay so much money."
There may be additional sewer rate hikes in the future. Hackler said he will propose a cost-of-living increase for the coming year.
Hackler said the village board directed village attorney Joseph Lierman to ask the state to pass on to St. Joseph some of the fine money if and when the EPA fines those entities responsible for the ammonia spill in Urbana.
"But I'm not holding my breath that we'll get any of that money," Hackler said.