South Lawrence residents are going to get a new $80 million neighbor in the next few years.
No, it's not Bill Gates' retirement home.
It will be the city's second sewer treatment plant, and the only thing guaranteed about the project is that it will be the single most expensive project City Hall has ever undertaken.
Whether it will be a good neighbor is a much more open question.
Already the city has held one meeting where neighbors near two proposed sites have expressed concerns about whether living next to the plant will be like having a permanent campsite next to the Porta-Potties at the Wakarusa music festival.
Neighbors next to the city's existing sewer treatment plant at the end of East Eighth Street in East Lawrence told the Journal-World that potential neighbors shouldn't fret too much.
"Is it like not living next to a sewer plant? No," said John Craft, who lives on East 11th Street just south and east of the plant. "But I only notice it about half a dozen times a year, and it is nothing too bad anymore."
That's the message Dave Wagner - the city's assistant director of utilities and the man who oversees the city's wastewater operations - wants people to hear.
Engineers are in the early phases of designing the plant, which is expected to be operational by 2010 or 2011. Wagner said building a new sewer plant is a lot like ordering a new car - you can add on all types of options, but none of them are free.
The plant will be built with a certain amount of odor-control devices, but the city can add even more, if that's what residents demand. The additional odor-control devices - which would require more of the plant to be enclosed - could add millions of dollars to the cost.
More about the proposed plant
"We want to do what we need to do, but we don't want to do more than what we need to because it definitely could cost a lot of money," Wagner said.
The city is so sensitive about the issue it doesn't even call the project a sewer treatment plant. Instead, city officials always refer to it as the Wakarusa Water Reclamation Facility. Get it? The plant may be treating human waste, but it really is reclaiming water.
The Journal-World talked to more than a half-dozen neighbors or workers who are near the current plant on a regular basis. They still call the place a sewer plant. By and large, they don't call it nasty names.
"I guess I really don't have any complaints about it," said Joe Sweet, who lives near Ninth and Pennsylvania streets just east of the plant. "Periodically you smell it, and it is pretty hard to predict when you'll smell it. But it is never overpowering."
Sweet estimated he smells the plant one to two times per month, including Thursday morning when he talked to the Journal-World. The odor was about as strong as that of a damp lawn freshly cut.
Meteorologically speaking, people who live near Ninth and Oak streets in North Lawrence should bear the brunt of any odors. Kansas winds, especially during the summer, typically come out of the south and west. That would put the North Lawrence homes in the direct line of fire.
When several residents were asked what it is like to live near a sewer plant, it took them a few seconds to remember the plant is just across the river from them.
"I don't even know it is there," said Brian Runk, who lives in the 900 block of Oak Street. "The Bradford Pears downtown smell worse. They look prettier, but they smell worse."
Make no mistake, a sewer plant has plenty of potential to stink, depending on how it is run. Craft said when he first moved to his property about five years ago, there were odor problems. He said there were particular problems with how the city stored its biosolids, a type of sludge that is a by-product of treated sewage. But after several neighbors complained, the city put a roof over the storage area. Craft said that has largely ended the odors.
"I bought this property knowing the plant was here," Craft said. "That's different than having it move into your area. I might be a little concerned in that case. It wouldn't necessarily be a person's preference to have one next door.
The city has narrowed the possible sites for a new sewer plant to two: ¢ South of the Wakarusa River and west of U.S. Highway 59 where it intersects North 1200 Road. The city said it is looking for property on both the north and south side of North 1200. ¢ South of the Wakarusa River where East 1600 Road, which is O'Connell Road extended, dead ends at the river. The city primarily would be looking for property east of East 1600 Road. Total size of the site could vary from 235 acres to 1,000 acres, with much of the property serving as unused buffer ground.
"But a lot of it comes down to how good of a neighbor the city wants to be. In the time I've been out here, I think the city has made a good effort to be a good neighbor."
Nature at work
Concerns about a sewer plant, though, go beyond smell. There are also issues about whether the plant uses and stores dangerous chemicals, as well as concerns about what the facility is dumping back into the river.
Wagner said the plant does use some chemicals, but he said not nearly as many as people may think. Instead, the plant relies more on natural processes.
"The same process that happens when a piece of wood decomposes on the ground is basically the same process we use," Wagner said. "We let nature do a lot of the work."
Wagner and his crew of 17 plant employees are proud of what comes out the pipe. Wagner said the amount of feces in the treated effluent is less than that found naturally in the Kansas River. He said the quality of the treated effluent - from a fecal standpoint anyway - is as good as or better than what is released into the Wakarusa River via the Clinton Dam.
The plant in 2005 won two national awards from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Michael Campbell, chair of the Wakarusa Group of the Sierra Club, has been following the city's plan to build a new sewer treatment plant. He said he's comfortable that a new plant isn't going to do environmental harm to the Wakarusa River.
"The federal standards are pretty high," said Campbell, who said working on ways to conserve energy at the plant was the main environmental issue he saw. "The days when you could dump raw sewage or something close to raw sewage into the river are long gone."
It takes seven steps to treat raw sewage
¢ Step 1: Three, 48-inch pipes transport all the city's sewage to the treatment plant. From there, two large pumps send it uphill so sewage can travel through the plant via gravity. ¢ Step 2: The sewage sits in a basin a short period to let stones, dirt, sand and other abrasive material settle. An auger-like device separates solids from the liquid sewage. The grit as it is called - is washed, dried and hauled to an approved landfill. ¢ Step 3: The sewage sits three to four hours in two, 90-by-10-feet basins allowing more material - called sludge - to settle. Some sludge is dried and pressed on special machines to become what are called biosolids. The biosolids about twice per year are hauled from the site by area farmers for use as fertilizer. The sludge also is used to produce methane, which powers boilers at the plant. ¢ Step 4: The sewage sits in an aeration basin that looks much like the settling basin in step 3. The main difference is that large blowers, powered by three, 400 horsepower motors, inject air into the sewage. That does two things: It provides the necessary environment for large amounts of microbes - small organisms naturally attracted to sewage - to thrive. The microbes feed on the sewage, removing fecal matter and other elements that must be removed. Secondly, the air keeps the sewage moving. That's important, said Dave Wagner, the city's assistant director of utilities, because microbes don't have legs. "There's no drive-up lane for microbes to use," he said. "This is our way of bringing the food to them." ¢ Step 5: The sewage goes to another settling basin, giving any material one last chance to settle. ¢ Step 6: This is the only step chemicals are used. Plant operators inject chlorine bleach - slightly stronger than the household variety - into the sewage to kill remaining toxins. Then sodium bisulfite is added to remove the chlorine from the water. Federal regulations do not allow chlorinated water to be discharged into rivers. Before 1997 - when federal regulations were changed to require all treated wastewater be clean enough for human recreation activities - the plant used no chemicals. "I always encourage everyone to go swim in the Kansas River," Wagner said with a laugh. "Because if you are not, there's really no reason for us to use these chemicals." The plant uses more chemicals during heavy rains when more than 25 million gallons of sewage are treated per day. That's twice the amount normally treated. The plant uses its chemically dependent "wet weather" facility about six times yearly. ¢ Step 7. The sewage is no longer sewage. It is called effluent. It goes through a series of pipes and canal-like devices where a small amount is pulled out and tested by plant operators. The rest goes through a pipe that discharges into the Kansas River.