Johnson Utilities wastewater treatment

A Johnson Utilities wastewater treatment plant in San Tan Valley that has been the source of many odor complaints could be replaced.

FLORENCE — Rather than close the smelly, troubled Section 11 wastewater plant at Magic Ranch, Johnson Utilities officials believe the faster and more cost-efficient solution is to replace it with a new enclosed plant.

Interim operator EPCOR has said it plans to close Section 11 and build a new plant at Copper Basin. However, it will take years for a new plant to be designed, permitted and constructed, “and I don’t believe any of the residents in the area surrounding Section 11 want to wait years,” JU General Manager Gary Drummond told PinalCentral.

Drummond said two to three years ago, JU officials had also considered closing Section 11. But they now believe they can achieve compliance sooner, and achieve a better deal for ratepayers, if they build a Biolac plant at Section 11 and delay any construction of a new Copper Basin plant.

Biolac is a brand name of wastewater treatment.

“Many times an existing basin or lagoon can be modified to fit the Biolac system, making it ideal for upgrading and retrofitting existing lagoon treatment systems,” according to a Parkson Corporation website.

Section 11 is an open, lagoon-style plant, and the Biolac plant would be an enclosed plant, JU legal counsel Jeffrey Crockett said. A May 8 return to compliance plan from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality quotes a consultant as saying a Biolac plant is a more robust solution if operated correctly, and would reliably treat wastewater for a longer period of time and allow for additional treatment capacity by expanding the Biolac system if needed.

“We’re going to eliminate the lagoons at Section 11 in favor of building this Biolac plant if that’s approved by ADEQ and the Copper Basin plant will be delayed out into the future. That plant may be needed in the future for demand. But if we build this Biolac plant now, it will take care of the current and future demand for the next probably 10 years,” Crockett said.

Drummond said a new wastewater treatment plant at Copper Basin, by EPCOR’s own estimates, is in the neighborhood of $90 million. There may be additional millions in infrastructure costs. “If that plant were built, it would still have less capacity than a Biolac plant at Section 11. And the Biolac plant can be built for a fraction of the cost of a Copper Basin plant,” Drummond said.

“As you may know, the county wants a solution yesterday to that problem, as does ADEQ, because the Section 11 plant is not in compliance,” he added.

EPCOR commented by email. First, it’s important to point out that in 2016 Johnson Utilities ownership provided plans, long before an interim manager was appointed, to close Section 11 and replace it with a new plant. Johnson Utilities did not follow through on those plans.

“The current infrastructure improvement plan was developed with third-party experts. Given the state of the Section 11 plant and the amount of growth in the area, a new plant is the recommended solution and was approved by the ACC. In our opinion, decommissioning the Section 11 plant and building a new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant is the right thing to do for the residents of San Tan Valley.”

JU’s motion to terminate EPCOR as interim operator of JU says “EPCOR has no ADEQ-approved plan to bring this facility into compliance; its plan is to leave the Section 11 wastewater treatment plan out of compliance for two to three more years while it builds a new Copper Basin wastewater treatment plant at an estimated cost of more than $60 million together with associated infrastructure improvements estimated at an additional $30 million.”

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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