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State signs off on Lower Smith River funding
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State signs off on Lower Smith River funding

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Wastewater

COLLINSVILLE-The Henry County Public Service Authority has received unanimous approval from the State Water Control Board for funding that could potentially allow the Lower Smith River Wastewater Treatment Plant to reopen.

The board approved the Fiscal Year 2017 Clean Water Revolving Funding at its quarterly meeting in Richmond on Monday. The PSA received approval for a $23.6 million loan to reopen the Lower Smith River plant, should they decide to move forward with the project.

The PSA operated the plant from 1989 to 2004, when it was shut down after multiple manufacturing plants closed in Henry County. Since then, the city of Martinsville has treated most of the PSA’s wastewater flow based on a contractual agreement between the PSA and the city.

If the PSA was to reopen the plant and start treating its own sewage again, Martinsville would lose about $1.3 million in revenue per year, according to Assistant City Manager Wayne Knox and Henry County Deputy Administrator Dale Wagoner, the authority’s deputy manager. As for why the plant could be needed, Wagoner explained the PSA recently took on more than 120 new sewer customers after lagoons serving the Grassy Creek and Carver areas were closed.

Also, the authority has seen an increased demand for sewage treatment services, due to growth in the county’s industrial base, mainly at the Patriot Centre industrial park. Yet another future client was added to the list on Tuesday, as Gov. McAuliffe announced Novatech will build its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Henry County. The county also wants additional capacity on hand as Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre, on U.S. 220 south of Ridgeway, is open for potential occupants.

City of Martinsville officials spoke against the possible reopening of the plant during the application process and at Monday’s meeting. However, a Department of Environmental Quality staff report that was read at Monday’s meeting said that officials felt the city’s complaints shouldn’t be taken into account.

“We do not believe it is appropriate for the (Water Control) Board to take any actions that would favor one locality over another,” the report stated. “DEQ and the board do not have the responsibility or the authority to intervene in issues regarding regional agreements between local jurisdictions.”

In an interview with the Martinsville Bulletin on Wednesday, PSA General Manager Tim Hall said that now that the funding has been approved, the PSA will continue to do its due diligence to determine whether reopening the plant is in the best interests of Henry County PSA customers.

“We’ll continue to evaluate the need for it,” Hall said. “Clearly, when you get approved for financing, there comes a responsibility to pay that back, and we’ll continue to study it to make sure it doesn’t have a negative impact on our customer base. We have been studying that all along. That’s been part of the due process and due diligence we’ve been doing. … It’s not any different of a process from any other construction project. It just seems to have gotten more attention than most.”

“We have a good track record with DEQ (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality) and with the water control board on projects that we’ve financed before,” Hall added. “I think they saw that this was a choice that they should make based on the merits of the project and based on the merits of the applicant.”

In a statement added to its proposed legislative agenda for 2017, the Martinsville City Council declared that it opposes the PSA’s efforts to reopen the plant without a regional study showing it would be in the best interests of city and county taxpayers, the authority’s customers, local economic needs and state environmental policy.

In an interview with the Martinsville Bulletin on Wednesday, Martinsville Mayor Danny Turner said that reopening the Lower Smith plant would hinder future economic growth in the area and cause county sewer rates to increase dramatically.

“It’s obvious that if the county opens this plant up and the city doesn’t shut down its plant – and it can’t because of potential economic development – it’s going to skyrocket the county rates,” Turner said.

When asked if he would still oppose the plant’s reopening even if the county determined that doing so was in the best interests of county taxpayers, Turner said that there was “absolutely no way” that reopening the plant would benefit anyone.

“There’s no way, no how that the county PSA can make this in the best interests of anybody,” Turner said. “This is high stakes poker. The county’s trying to get us to (decrease) what they owe for repairs to the sewer line.” That comment refers to a $20 million repair project for the collapsed Rives Road sewer line.

“I wanted to debunk this myth that the two localities don’t cooperate,” Hall said in a statement released by the PSA. “We do, on many fronts – a joint 9-1-1, a joint Social Services office, a joint Economic Development office, eight river access points, two major business parks, the Smith River Sports Complex, and many, many others. But it’s still this simple - the Public Service Authority is a sewer customer of the city of Martinsville. A customer should have the option of deciding where to do business. The PSA wants to consider all options that could be in the best interests of the PSA and, in the long term, the best interests of the whole community.”

Ben R. Williams reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at benjamin.williams@martinsvillebulletin.com

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