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Water Industry News

Foes of Holyoke contract operations meet to plan strategy

November 14, 2004

By DAVID REID

HOLYOKE - A new residents group opposed to privatization of the city's sewage treatment operations will hold an informational meeting tonight.

The group, Holyoke Citizens for Open Government, has demanded copies of a proposed 20-year contract with Aquarion Water Services of Bridgeport pegged at more than $100 million.

Mayor Michael J. Sullivan, though, said he has not yet seen a final draft of the contract, which is still being negotiated between the company and consultants hired two years ago by the city.

City-hired consultants have projected the city would save between $7.1 million and $8.6 million over 20 years if Aquarion is hired to upgrade and run the treatment plant and comply with state and federal mandates to reduce pollution of the Connecticut River.

Aquarion, a subsidiary of the publicly held international firm Kelda Group PLC of England, was the only bidder for the project in June.

Long-delayed upgrades to the Berkshire Street treatment plant and a combined sewer overflow outlet there are estimated to cost more than $17.9 million, the amount of a 2 percent state revolving fund loan the city was preliminarily awarded this year to pay for the work.

For its services, including reducing odors and complying with clean water standards required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Aquarion would be paid an average $8.45 million a year for 20 years, officials said.

The citizens group, which includes several city councilors, was formed last week as a response to the proposed Aquarion contract.

Their meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Joseph Metcalf Preschool building at 2019 Northampton St.

The featured speaker will be Lee resident Dierdre Consolati, whose citizen group recently defeated an effort there to privatize town sewer operations.

A flyer for the group criticizes Aquarion's "rosy projections" of financial costs, and states the company has little expertise with wastewater plants and "a poor track record elsewhere."

Group members attended a Tuesday meeting of the Board of Public Works, where the board extended the public comment period to at least noon on Nov. 29. The board also voted 3-0 to seek a sewer rate hike in January from $1.95 to $3.60 per 1,000 gallons of sewage.

Some city councilors have said they are opposed to privatization and will vote against any rate increases. The mayor and the Board of Public Works have the sole authority to sign the contract.

Sullivan said Thursday he had no stake in privatization unless it saves money for city rate-payers. But he said the city needs to act quickly to comply with EPA requirements to clean up the river.

To make that point, Kenneth Moraff, the EPA's chief enforcement officer for the New England Region, sent a letter to the mayor Nov. 4.

Moraff stated that the city's recent record toward eliminating sewer overflows during heavy rains has lagged while it studied alternate funding mechanisms like privatization.

"At this point," Moraff added, "there does not appear to be a justification for further delays in the city's work." Failure to approve additional money, he said, "would demonstrate that a judicial order could be necessary to secure a stronger city commitment towards compliance with the Clean Water Act," including possible monetary penalties.

Sullivan said further delays could jeopardize the $17.9 million state loan, although the city could apply next year.

"But it would have been nice to get this project up and going," Sullivan said.