Costly secondary wastewater plant a top priority for Verga

Mayor Greg Verga says Gloucester will soon need a secondary wastewater treatment plant at a cost of $80 million to $100 million, and proposed it be built behind the first, pictured, on Essex Avenue.

Mayor Greg Verga told the City Council Tuesday night that the creation of a secondary wastewater treatment plant would be a top priority of his administration right out of the gate.

This as the Verga administration makes plans to handle an overflow of federal COVID-19 stimulus and infrastructure dollars coming Gloucester’s way.

In an interview in his office Wednesday, Verga said the project to add a secondary treatment plant to the existing one on Essex Avenue could cost ratepayers upwards of $100 million. But that’s just a rough estimate.

He said the number that was kicked around when he was on the City Council six years ago was $80 million.

“Now they are talking about 100 million bucks,” Verga said. “And that’s just back of the napkin,” he added, saying that no one has actually crunched the numbers for the project.

“So it would be a huge hit,” said Verga. The city’s water and sewer systems are budgeted as self-sustaining enterprise funds that are funded by ratepayers.

“So, if all of a sudden we said, ‘OK ratepayers, now we are going to divvy up $100 million between you,’ that’s a very expensive glass of water. So, we are going to be doing everything we can to get federal and state funding,” Verga said.

Verga spoke about $23 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars coming Gloucester’s way. In addition, he told the council the city expects to get money from the federal infrastructure bill and possibly from the Build Back Better bill being pushed by the Biden administration that has stalled on Capitol Hill.

“We have got to think carefully and strategically about how we are going to spend that money, put it to the best use. There’s going to be a lot of strings attached to all of those dollars, but we are going to do it right,” Verga told the council Tuesday.

“One of the things we are going to keep an eye out on is the secondary sewer plant,” Verga told councilors on topic of his priorities. “So, on the one hand we have all this money coming in, but on the other hand, the days of kicking the can down the road are gone, unfortunately for us.”

He said the council and his administration must tackle this project in the coming months and the next couple of years of his first term.

Gloucester, Verga said in the interview, has one of the few wastewater facilities in the country that have only primary treatment.

“Since the ‘80s, we’ve been on a waiver,” said Verga. “The federal government, the EPA has been saying, ‘OK, what you are sending out to the harbor is OK,’ and I guess it’s looking like those days are over.”

Verga, while not pointing fingers at past administrations, said past mayors were able to put off doing such a large and expensive project, something he might have done if he were mayor back then.

“It’s time we have to address it,” he said.

Verga said he would like to be able to think outside the box when it comes to finding revenue to pay for the project. Perhaps, he said, the plant could recapture the methane it produces for energy, and, as he has heard has been done in other states, it might produce fertilizer to be sold.

“That might be wishful thinking,” said Verga, who said he’ll be asking questions about what can be done.

“Something’s going to happen because at some point very soon, the federal government is going to say you have got to do the secondary treatment,” Verga said.

Verga said state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, were able to get an earmark in the ARPA funding of $175,000 to pay for engineering and feasibility studies. He said the existing site of the wastewater plant on Essex Avenue has enough room to build the secondary treatment plant.

“So, that’s a good start, that we don’t have to go looking somewhere else,” Verga said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or by email at eforman@northofboston.com.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or by email at eforman@northofboston.com.

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