The mothballed $12 million water treatment plant the Greater Augusta Utility District built in 1992, only to shut down in 2004 because demand decreased and the district found cheaper ways to provide water, could be converted to a new use as an innovative hands-on water and wastewater treatment training center.

It would be the only training center of its kind in the country, officials said.

The district’s proposal to lease the property to the Maine Rural Water Association could provide revenue to the utility district and thus lessen the burden on ratepayers, while creating a use for an otherwise unused treatment plant. It would be a place to train and certify new workers in water and sewer treatment, industries with aging workforces and a lack of qualified workers to take their place when they retire.

Without a use for the vacant east Winthrop plant, district officials said they would have to demolish it to avoid the cost of long-term maintenance. It was built to treat water pulled from nearby Carlton Pond and pipe it into the Greater Augusta Utility District’s public drinking water system. Soon it won’t even be the primary backup water source it has been in recent years.

“It’s challenging for the trustees (of the Greater Augusta Utility District) to think about demolishing a $12 million building. We don’t want to do that,” said Ken Knight, chairman of the district’s board of trustees. “Because it’s not being used, you can’t just keep maintaining it for nothing. This proposal seemed like a wonderful opportunity to not demolish the plant.”

The proposal is in the early stages of development and lacking a major piece — the money to pay for renovating the plant and creating and staffing the new instructional programs.

Kirsten Hebert, executive director of the Maine Rural Water Association, a Richmond-based nonprofit that assists Maine’s many rural water and wastewater system operators through training, advocacy, advice and technical support, said they hope to secure a planning grant to put the details of the proposal together.

She said if the plan moves forward, money to fund the renovation, provide equipment and classroom materials and hire instructors could potentially come from a combination of private donations, industry sponsors, grants and a loan taken out by the association. She said the planning process could turn up other potential funding sources.

“We’re hopeful to find a grant, because, really, the Greater Augusta Utility District shouldn’t have any financial responsibility for this, and our association is not in a position to borrow $1 million to rehabilitate this space,” Hebert said.

If it all comes together, Hebert said the Carlton Pond Road plant could open next year.

ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND

Hebert said regional and national water industry officials have expressed interest in the project, which she and Knight said would be the only one of its kind in the country and could draw students seeking to become trained and certified in the industry from New England or even nationwide.

“Being able to sit in class, then get up from your chair, walk out back and do hands-on training on what you were just talking about in class, that type of training is truly unique,” said Hebert, an Augusta resident who is also a trustee of the Greater Augusta Utility District. “I’ve been unable to find any other academy or school of this ilk.”

Officials noted there is an anticipated need for operators, engineers and other workers in the industry. According to a 2014 survey published in trade publication Water & Wastes Digest, the average age of survey respondents was 56, more than one-third were 60 or older, and more than one-third had been in the industry 30 years or more.

“At the wastewater plant, we’ve got a bunch of folks in their mid-50s. A lot of folks stay in this industry for a long time,” said Brian Tarbuck, superintendent of the utility district. “People tend to stay a long time, and we’re lucky for that, but eventually they go, and over the years, we’ve had a hard time finding people that knew anything about water or wastewater. Hopefully this school will help people who might be interested in a career in this public service get into the industry. It may be a way to educate water operators for the next decades.”

Hebert said state and federal Department of Labor officials have expressed interest in the training center as a place where displaced workers from other occupations could come for training as part of an apprenticeship program.

Knight and Hebert have met with officials from the University of Maine at Augusta and Kennebec Valley Community College about partnering on training programs and having some of their students take classes and get credits at the center, which Knight said could be called the Maine Environmental Training Center.

Representatives from those colleges and others, including economic development officials and representatives from U.S. Sen. Angus King’s office, and other representatives from Maine’s legislative delegation, participated in a meeting last December and plan to get together again Tuesday.

“As the economy globalizes and the workforce becomes more competitive, Sen. King looks for opportunities to support projects that foster economic opportunity and prosperity in Maine,” Scott Ogden, a spokesman for King, said Friday. “One way our office achieves that goal is by helping connect people to the resources, organizations, and education that they need, not only to secure a job, but to also thrive in it. Sen. King looks forward to continuing those discussions, and with the support of the community, he is hopeful that the former plant can be revived as the first hands-on water treatment school in the country.”

SAFEGUARDS PLANNED

Maine Rural Water Association already offers training in the industry to more than 1,000 people a year. It also provides testing that can lead to industry certifications.

The plant would need new equipment in addition to the idle water treatment equipment meant to treat surface water from Carlton Pond there now and would also likely offer wastewater treatment training.

Tarbuck said there is no reason for area residents to be concerned a trainee at the proposed training center could inadvertently push the wrong buttons or turn the wrong valve and either send untreated water into the public drinking water supply or cause a failure at the dam retaining the water of Carlton Pond, resulting in flooding.

“We wouldn’t allow that chance. We’d provide safeguards to make sure there was no possible way for (untreated water) to get into the system,” he said, adding that the dam at Carlton Pond, unlike larger dams, is not under a lot of pressure nor likely to cause flooding if its gates were mistakenly opened to pull water into the idled plant.

Knight said the district trustees agreed to authorize negotiations with Maine Rural Water Association on a lease for the property. Those talks are still in preliminary stages, Knight and Hebert said, and no dollar amount has been agreed to.

“It is young, in concept,” Hebert said. “But I truly think the one-of-a-kind opportunity here can be a boon to this state. I see it reaching beyond Maine’s borders (to bring in students). Someday, we could be worried about where dorms are going to go and providing jobs for instructors and others.”

Tarbuck said the property doesn’t cost a lot to maintain — it’s mostly the cost of keeping electricity there and keeping the lawn mowed — but the roof is starting to get some leaks.

The plant was built in the early 1990s and was the district’s primary drinking water source until 2004, when the district switched to three wells near Bond Brook in Augusta.

Tarbuck said when the former Kirschner hot dog plant in Augusta, a major water user, closed in 2004, the district had a major decrease in the amount of water it needed to provide. The district determined its water needs could be met by the three wells and could also do so for about $400,000 a year less than it cost to pull and treat surface water at the plant in east Winthrop. So the district decided to mothball the treatment plant and only use it as a backup for emergencies.

However, with the addition of new wells on the west side of Augusta the district had drilled last year, which are expected to come on line this summer, the idled plant may no longer even be needed as a backup water source, at least not unless the district gets a major new user of water in the area, Knight said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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