NAS Whidbey is unable to partner on city's sewage treatment plant

It appears Oak Harbor will be building the city's new sewage treatment plant without the assistance of the U.S. Navy.

Base officials did not meet a city-set Monday deadline to commit to the multi-million project, so the city council agreed to forge ahead alone during its regular meeting Tuesday evening.

"It's not really a decision. It's just the option we are left with," Councilwoman Tara Hizon said.

City officials sent the Navy a letter just before Christmas, explaining that they would have to go forward on the treatment plant without Navy participation unless they got a commitment by Jan. 20. The city is facing deadlines from the state Department of Ecology and has to move forward with the design work.

Capt. Mike Nortier, commanding officer of Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, sent a response to city officials last week, saying that he was unable to make a firm commitment on a cost-sharing agreement for the new plant because of funding limitations and government regulations. He said he would like to continue negotiations, but understood that the city may need to move forward on its own.

As a result, the plant will be smaller than it would have been as a joint project to treat sewage from both city and Navy-base residents. The project will mean significant increases in sewage treatment rates for city residents with or without the Navy partnership; it may be slightly more without the Navy due to the economy of scale.

Currently, the city and Navy partner on sewage treatment. The treatment lagoons are located on Navy property at the Seaplane base while the city runs the facility. The aging facility, however, is nearing capacity and technology may not meet clean-water regulations in the future.

In addition, the lagoons on the banks of Crescent Harbor are surrounded by an environmentally sensitive marshland. City Engineer Joe Stowell showed the council a photo Tuesday of a high-tide event at the lagoons; it appeared that the waters were just one foot from flooding the lagoons, which would cause an environmental calamity.

"It's just a matter of time," Mayor Scott Dudley said in an interview about the possibility of flooding at the lagoons, "and it's a huge environmental concern."

A draft report by a Navy consultant indicates that the base will continue to utilize the lagoons for treatment of base sewage.

Some council members still feel it's inevitable that the Navy will someday want to partner with the city on the new treatment plant. Councilman Jim Campbell said this week that, sooner or later, the lagoons "will go belly up," but that it will cost much more to retrofit the Navy into the project in the future.

"Bureaucracy is what it is, more than anything else," he said in an interview. "Someday when it gets through the maze of people and piles of paperwork, and the funding becomes available, they'll come back to us."

Likewise, Councilman Rick Almberg also said during a December workshop that he also believes that the Navy will someday want to partner, but that the cost estimates for the Navy to join the project now will seem like "chump change" compared to what it will cost to connect base toilets to the new plant in the future.

Almberg said he agreed with Dudley, who has expressed frustration with the Navy over the issue. At the workshop, Dudley pointed out that Navy officials pressed the city to act quickly when they wanted easements for installation of jet fuel lines across the city, and the city complied.

But the situation was different when the city asked the Navy for expediency over the sewage treatment issue. City officials sent the Navy a letter in March of 2013, asking the Navy for a decision on the proposed partnership by July. But the Navy didn't even "bring on" its consultant to begin looking into the proposal until July, Dudley said.

"We haven't seen the urgency or eagerness from the Navy's side," he said.

After the July deadline passed, city officials asked the Navy for an answer by Oct. 31; when they didn't get one, the deadline was changed again to Nov. 25.

During the Nov. 25 meeting with the council and mayor, Nortier explained that his hands were tied and asked for more time. He said there were a lot of questions that needed to be answered and issues negotiated before the Navy could legally agree to the city's proposal. The Navy's consultant raised many questions about the city's proposal for the plant as well as the proposed cost sharing.

In a joint press release issued by the Navy and city Thursday, Nortier noted that "the Navy cannot make lump sum payments for new facilities related to the city's basic infrastructure or systems unless authorized under specific legislation."

While the sewage-related partnership may be coming to an end, city and Navy officials agreed the historic collaboration and teamwork between the two entities will endure.

"I have to conclude, sometimes it's just better to be friend than to be business partners," Almberg said.

"The relationship between NAS Whidbey Island and the city of Oak Harbor is recognized as a model relationship between a military base and the surrounding community," Nortier said in the press release. "We are better able to support our mission due to the support of Oak Harbor city and the local community."

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