If you’ve been following along with the RIB lawsuit events, you know that this is the crux of the matter. Is it possible, as WP maintains, to fix the RIB site and get a reasonable service life from it, or is a hopelessly failed facility that is one step away from being shut down as the town contends? Obviously there’s a lot of information that we don’t have, and there is some amount of speculation attached to either position.
The town has refused to entertain the notion of spending any money to fix the RIB site. Shortly after start-up, after the initial slope failures, WP’s modelling subcontractor said that more monitoring wells were needed to understand what was happening. That wasn’t done, so we went for a couple of years speculating about the problems.
In late 2011, WP hired SW Cole to do a geotechnical survey of the site. In other words, to definitively figure out what the problems are. They did indeed install some new monitoring wells, and revisited the past and present data from the present wells. They reviewed the soil sampling records from those wells and they arrived at the conclusion that the site could support 340,000 gallons per day. We got a new five year permit based on those findings. They also recommended that remedial measures be implemented.
Among the recommended remedial measures were some siphon wells to relieve the head (pressure) at some of the worse breakouts. They also recommended some form of slope stabilization. Apparently, slope stabilization isn’t a unique concept in the engineering world. One other application that has been mentioned is the backside of earthen dams. There are established and effective techniques that have been developed to stabilize leaking earthen dams and stop soil piping from causing them to fail. Apparently that’s pretty much what needs to be done to the steeper slopes on our RIB hill.
As I get it, WP had offered to design, or pay for someone else to design, such a stabilization system. Unfortunately, they wanted the town to pay for the actual work. The estimate was in the 1-2 million range. The Selectmen wanted no part of going back to the voters for more RIB money. And so the stalemate began.
When I first heard this story, my reaction was that WP should pay for the whole thing – design, construction, the works. Since then, I’ve had a closer look at their position. I’m in no way advocating for them, but before you can decide you have to hear and understand both sides.
My impression of WP’s position is that they were hired to find a solution to the town’s critical problem in 2006 when a NHDES Administrative Order had been issued to halt all expansion of the town’s sewer capability. No new construction. This was back in the golden age before the real estate market collapsed, and it was a huge problem.
So WP looked at the possible solutions and came up with four. Expand the spray fields, develop the e-snow system that one of our Selectmen was pushing, connect to the interceptor on the other side of the lake, or build a rapid infiltration system (RIB). In the end, it came down to economics. The RIB was millions of dollars less than any of the alternatives.
In hindsight, we now find that the best site we could come up with had steep slopes and failed. We can go around as to whether WP should have known that. Lets say they should have. What is the remedy?
WP says that if they had known the slopes would fail, they would have recommended stabilizing them. In other words, they are saying that they would not have recommended against building the RIB, only that it would have cost more. But it would still have been millions less than next best alternative. They believe the town would have still chosen the RIB, because it appears to them that the town’s decision was based primarily on cost.
So their position seems to be that they screwed up in not putting slope stability into the original design, and they are willing to do that. The town, they say, should pay for it because they would have had to do so in the first place. At this point, it isn’t about whether we agree with them. It’s about whether a jury would.
Last year WP had their expert witnesses, Haley and Aldrich, actually design some of the needed slope stabilization. They brought it to the NHDES and asked them if it was feasible. NHDES responded by saying that it was and that the town should do it. NHDES also went on to point out that the RIB problems go beyond the slope failures, and that there are issues with wetland erosion. WP hired a wetland expert who has offered the opinion that the wetland problems can be mitigated with relatively inexpensive, accepted practices.
Why would NHDES recommend a multi-million dollar stabilization plan that would take a year or more to complete if they agreed with the town’s position that the site is completely failed and must be abandoned?
Wolfeboro’s strategy has been to block WP from introducing the remediation plan from the trial. That may work, but in the end what are we going to do about our original problem?
WP makes the point that three engineering firms have done real studies and arrived at the same conclusion: That remediation measures should be pursued. Notwithstanding that one of them is Wright-Pierce and the others were hired by them, these are professional engineering firms with many people involved. Are they all in on the conspiracy to hide a huge unsolvable problem?
Contrast that with Wolfeboro’s hired guns – Fuss & O’Niell. According to WP, aside from a couple of site visits to look around, they have never done any actual engineering there. They are essentially saying what the town pays them to say, but offer little more than their opinion.
I don’t know if the site can be fixed to do 600,000 gallons per day. I think it can be made to service the town’s need for the foreseeable future, after all, it has been servicing our needs, along with limited spraying, for the past five years. The whole issue with the 600,000 gallons per day appears to be based on the original idea that the treatment plant capacity is 600,000 gpd and the site should be able to handle the output of the plant. But we have a 90 million gallon storage pond that has been used for decades to even-out the seasonal demand and allow the town to dispose of it’s effluent at a steady reduced rate.
WP seems to be saying that while they targeted a solution that could handle the town’s peak output, with the storage pond as a buffer, the RIB facility can be made to handle the town’s needs. That, they say, is what the original problem was and what they were hired to do. Long before the RIB was ever started up, WP was saying that the best way to handle the town’s peak flow issues was to buffer the demand using the storage pond.
I don’t know how this is going to turn out. Wolfeboro could certainly outmaneuver WP in a trial and get a big settlement. My concern is that as I look more and more at the publicly available information, I wonder if we are on the right side of this.
Is it true, for instance, that we are exposed to the potential for a lawsuit for damaging neighboring property? What is that exposure? What is that property worth? Should the town be trying to buy that property and suing WP for the cost to do that? Will winning this suit do anything to eliminate that threat?
While the state has a responsibility to enforce the groundwater regulations, those regulations exist, after all, to benefit the people who live here. Wolfeboro’s wastewater system, while it may be contributing to the negative impact that civilization has on the Winnipesaukee watershed through it’s effluent disposal, also contributes a huge positive impact in the reduction of nutrients from what would otherwise be hundreds of waterfront septic systems. In addition, how does the public benefit from having a hospital, schools, and commerce within the watershed area without a sewer system? It’s not just a Wolfeboro problem, it’s a regional problem.
I didn’t just come up with that rationalization. I got it several years ago from one of the prominent NHDES officials while standing around during a tour of the RIB site. I don’t think it’s realistic to argue that the state is going to slap Wolfeboro with $2,000 per hour fines. More likely we will get another Administrative Order halting connections and ordering action. We need to stop the finger pointing and hyperbole and work something out.