Facing mounting pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to curb the volume of pollutants being discharged into the Merrimack River, Haverhill is preparing to embark on an $8.8 million project to improve the city’s waste-water treatment plant.
The bulk of that money, $6 million to $7 million, will be spent to upgrade the equipment the city uses to process bio-solids, the residue that remains after sewage is treated. The goal is to reduce the combined sewer overflow — a mix of rainwater runoff, household sewage, and industrial wastewater — that is discharged into the river from the outdated system.
Ultimately, the price tag to bring Haverhill into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act could tally another $35 million, on top of the $18.5 million spent in 2006 and the $8.8 million project scheduled to be done in the fall.
Under federal guidelines, homeowners hooked up to the sewer system — who pay about $290 a year for services — could face a rate increase three times that amount to help pay for the upgrades.
Although city leaders said rate increases will not kick in for at least two years, federal regulators believe Haverhill has the ability to fund upgrades. According to Robert E. Ward, the city’s deputy public works director, the EPA’s position is that Haverhill has plenty of room to raise its sewer rates to pay for improvements that would reduce overflows. Under EPA guidelines, an affordable yearly bill would be equivalent to 2 percent of the city’s median household income of $60,271, or roughly $1,200.
“As long as they believe you can spend more under their criteria, they will have you continue to make improvements,” Ward said.
Haverhill’s outdated sewer overflow system serves roughly one-third of the city, including the downtown area. Each year, the city discharges about 30 million gallons of untreated waste water and storm-water runoff from that underground network of pipes into the Merrimack River.
“Years ago, household sewage and the storm-water catch basin went into the same pipe, and they designed overflow pipes to relieve the flow when needed,” said Ward.
“Those pipes just can’t handle all the flow in a heavy rainstorm, so now we’re left having to deal with the sins of the past.”
For years, the EPA has been pressing Haverhill and other former mill cities, including Lowell and Lawrence, to eliminate systems that combine sewage and stormwater or make costly improvements to them.
Haverhill already has invested $18.5 million in upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant and improvements to its combined sewer overflow system. That first phase was completed in 2006, Ward said. Future work to reduce pollutants entering the river will be done in phases to ensure the city makes smart investments, he said.
“This isn’t the only expensive item we have to pay for,” said Ward, who lives in Haverhill. “We’re capping the landfill and spending $4 million to $5 million to raise the floodwall in downtown. The money to pay for all of these projects is coming out of the same pockets.
“We can’t jump into a complex and expensive program to mitigate all overflows. We want to do it in phases so we spend our money wisely.”
The improvements the city plans to undertake in the fall are expected to reduce releases during storms by about one-third, to about 22 million gallons annually, Ward said. Ideally, regulators would like the city to eliminate the overflows.
Haverhill is hoping to put off sewer rate increases and any new fees by streamlining its Water & Wastewater Divisions.
“We’ve hired a consultant to do some work for us, to see where we can find some efficiencies at our plant and in our operations and save some money,” said Mayor James J. Fiorentini, noting that Haverhill is in the process of securing a low-interest loan through the state to pay for the upgrades to equipment the city uses to process bio-solids.
Recognizing the need to provide more access to financing, legislators on Beacon Hill are considering raising the spending cap for the low-interest, revolving loan program by $50 million a year to help municipalities pay for much-needed infrastructure projects.
The $138 million fund would be renamed the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust.
According to Geoffrey C. Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the legislation, although a step in the right direction, would provide only a fraction of the funding needed.
As places such as Haverhill struggle to address aging infrastructure, Fiorentini thinks the federal government should be helping to fund projects that are required to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.
“I feel if the federal government is requiring us to do this, they should give us money to help pay for it,” said Fiorentini. “We have had detailed plans for our [combined sewer overflow] and storm water for years, but having plans and paying for these projects are two different things.”Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@