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Repairing Charlottesville's broken wastewater station could cost $25M

Repairing Charlottesville’s largest wastewater pump station could cost upwards of $25 million, according to an update from the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority.

During a rainstorm Jan. 9, the Rivanna Pump Station failed, resulting in millions of gallons of wastewater overflowing into the Rivanna River.

Months later, the authority still isn’t sure what caused the failure.

But it does have an idea of what the repairs will cost Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County: somewhere between $20 and $25 million.

That includes $15 million to restore the pump station, which became submerged in wastewater after the January malfunction, causing significant damage to the equipment inside. The $15 million will be used to buy and install new equipment, including wiring, pumps and electronic devices.

Another $1.5 million will be spent on engineering and support services.

The remaining $6 million is required to keep a temporary pump station functioning through December. That temporary piping was a massive undertaking, as staff and contractors worked day and night to build a workaround so that the station, which services 60% of the entire system’s wastewater, could continue to operate.

The station does not actually clean the wastewater but collects it and pumps it 110 feet uphill to the “headworks,” which treats the dirty water. By digging a hole next to the station, the authority has been able to access the original piping for its workaround. It has connected existing piping to newly installed piping that wraps around the building. By using seven temporary pumps and a system of rented pipes, the authority has been able to circumvent the failed station, draining wastewater from within while also keeping it flowing to the treatment center.

“This is not just dropping a garden hose in there and saying let’s pump it out with something from Lowe’s,” Bill Mawyer, the authority’s executive director, said at a Monday meeting. “It’s intensive, expensive and time consuming. It’s heavy equipment, heavy piping, and it takes a lot of work to get it done.”

Charlottesville city councilor Brian Pinkston sits on the authority’s board of directors. He was among the people Mawyer was addressing on Monday night, and with Pinkston’s background in engineering and the process industry, he’s been very impressed by how quickly the authority responded to the crisis.

“That was some serious work that they pulled off. Really heroic,” Pinkston told The Daily Progress.

Workers were quickly able to construct a system that could handle the region’s wastewater capacity. And by Feb. 14, it was able to increase the workaround capacity to 53 million gallons per day, the same amount as the original station. If the crew hadn’t worked so diligently, there was a risk of additional wastewater overflowing and entering the nearby Rivanna River.

What caused the system to break in the first place remains unclear, and it could be weeks before there is any clear answer. While the authority has learned more about where the water entered the station, it doesn’t yet know how.

“We may know the path of where the water came through, but why did it happen like that? What failed? What didn’t work?” Mawyer asked Monday.

Pinkston doesn’t want to speculate on what caused the problem until there is a final report, but he said he is extremely interested to learn what went wrong.

Apart from satisfying curiosity, the cause of the malfunction could have serious financial implications for the city and Albemarle County.

The facility is insured by the Virginia Risk Sharing Association. The authority will pursue a reimbursement claim, but how much insurance will pay — if anything — depends on whether the cause is covered by the insurance policy. If it is, the authority could receive millions of dollars.

The authority has $27 million budgeted in reserves, which is enough to cover the total $25 million estimate. But it will still need to consider how to recoup the funds lost after the malfunction has led to the huge, unexpected expenditures.

That could mean including the cost in the authority’s upcoming budget proposal this March. Or it could mean delaying planned projects beyond 2029, redirecting that funding to cover the cost of the failed system. The authority would like to learn how much money it will receive from the insurance company before making a decision.

The station cost $31.5 million when it was constructed in 2017. The fact that it is less than 10 years old has raised eyebrows in the community, with some critical that such a major investment has already faced major difficulties.

“It’s very easy for folks in the community, and I fully appreciate it, to be like, ‘Boy they really screwed up,’” Pinkston said.

But he noted that the modern system is extremely complicated, with its many different technologies making it difficult to identify exactly what went wrong. Finding the answer to that question will be critical, not just to make sure this error never happens again, but to determine how much of the $25 million will be refunded.

“You can imagine insurance won’t pay for anything until they’re sure of the cause,” Pinkston said.


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