Wastewater woes: Millions at stake – Hasso Hering


A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Wastewater woes: Millions at stake

Written December 1st, 2017 by Hasso Hering

One of the ponds at the Talking Water Gardens in June 2015.

Albany and Millersburg completed their new wastewater treatment plant on the Willamette River in 2009 at a cost of around $70 million borrowed from the state. Three years later, for about $14 million, they finished the Talking Water Gardens. Neither project has worked entirely as planned, and now the cities may go to court over millions of dollars.

Albany announced Friday that at an executive session Thursday night, the two city councils authorized a lawsuit against CH2M Hill, the engineering firm that designed both the treatment plant and the Water Gardens, a series of ponds and channels intended to cool treated wastewater before its discharge to the Willamette River.

Kerry Shepherd with the Portland firm of Markowitz Herbold is handling the litigation. He’s the same lawyer whose firm years ago helped Albany obtain a $20 million settlement with Pepsi over failing to build a Gatorade factory in town. Later, Shepherd got Albany a $4.75 million settlement with the Siemens company, makers of a component of the wastewater treatment plant that was supposed to process solid waste.

In an email, Shepherd said: “CH2M has been a trusted partner of our communities for many years, and has been the lead engineering firm on our most important public works projects. We are disappointed with these projects, which we believe are suffering from fundamental engineering design flaws.”

If and when the authorized action is filed, in Linn County Circuit Court, it will state claims of more than $50 million, according to Shepherd. But he added: “While it is time to place these matters into our judicial system, we will continue to be open to speaking with CH2M Hill to resolve these problems amicably, if possible.”

The problem at the treatment plant is that a system named “Cannibal” was supposed to process waste so the residue could be applied to farm fields. Instead, the city has had to take the odorous stuff to the Coffin Butte landfill at the cost of hundreds of thousands per year. (The city also paid CH2M Hill $80,000 for its help in reaching the multimillion-dollar settlement with Siemens.)

The Talking Water Gardens are supposed to cool treated wastewater from about 72 to 68 degrees in line with requirements intended to protect Willamette River fish runs as decreed by the state Department of Environmental Quality. But the last I heard, the ponds never reached the amount of plant coverage needed to make that happen. City officials blame the nature of the pond bottoms.

The cities also say the Water Gardens have been leaking more water into the ground than expected, and they fear this might be regarded as an unlicensed discharge that could subject the city to costly enforcement action. (This even though the water is treated and would be permitted to flow directly into the river if the Water Gardens weren’t there.)

In the spring of 2014, some $3.8 million remained of the Siemens settlement to deal with the Cannibal issue. As I reported at the time, then-Public Works Director Mark Shepard told me that after the settlement, the city worked with CH2M to come up with a solution. “The cost estimates CH2M came back with were in excess of $10 million.”

Judging from the discussions at closed-to-the-public executive sessions over the years, nobody seems to know whether or how the problems at the treatment plant and the Talking Water Gardens can be fixed. But now that the issues have broken into the open with Friday’s announcement, we’re obviously talking a lot of cash. (hh)

7 responses to “Wastewater woes: Millions at stake”

  1. Curious Citizen says:

    The gardens etc. seemed like such good ideas to meet regulations. This is sad.
    Hopefully a smart person out there can solve this inexpensively. Seems like ever increasing impossible environmental regulations make solutions increasingly impossible.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. John Hartman says:

    This is great news for Albany’s reputation. Perhaps the City, or CARA under City management, could fully develop the scheme wherein companies are hustled and then, when the hustle is about to collapse, Albany sues. While not as reliable as regularly-collected tax dollars, lawsuits against underperforming corporate entities can provide much needed cash to fund downtown reconstruction efforts.

  3. John Marble says:

    In 2009 I was working in the drinking water/wastewater industry. During a conversation with some of the people involved in the Albany Cannibal project I asked what kind of reduction in solids they were expecting to achieve. I was stunned when the answer came back at 90%. Clearly this falls into the category of applying pixie dust to a science problem.

    As to the comment above that somehow this problem is a function of “increasingly impossible environmental regulations”, well, sorry, but this project is an example of well-intentioned magical thinking. And I’m also sorry to predict that there will be no simple, inexpensive solution.

  4. James Engel says:

    Maybe take a BIG hint from mother nature, She takes her time – i.e. tens, hundreds, thousands of years to make adjustments. The Talking Waters is not a bad idea to deal with waste water. It just has to be tweeked a bit to come around. Geez man, give it some time to deal with the problem. Like another 20 years. We’re so “Quick Fix” prone that it seems a knee jerk reaction to take legal action. AND, the only guy making $$$ is the attorney & he won’t fix the problem!!!

  5. Tony White says:

    Congratulations to the City of Albany for joining the wave of litigation-happy individuals and institutions that make up society today. The Pepsi settlement turned the City Council into a lawsuit-happy bunch of greedy grinches. Fix it first, then talk about liability.

    • Hasso Hering says:

      Fix it first? They’ve been trying to fix it for years. If you have a fix that works at reasonable expense, a fix that has somehow escaped any number of professional engineers, send it to the city. (hh)

  6. Sonia says:

    Lawsuits and money aside is “Cannibal” the reason and cause for that god awful gut wrenching smell you have here in Albany? It is not always but quite often in the air and seems to be stronger in and more often in the Millisburg area.It is enough to make you gag and i sometimes do!


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