NEW CASTLE — County Council passed a resolution Tuesday, urging County Executive Matt Meyer and his administration to assess alternative wastewater-treatment options for the county.
Only a small portion of the county’s wastewater currently goes through the Wilmington Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is run by the city. The county claims, however, that the city has been overcharging the county for its use and has refused to be transparent about costs and issues.
“It’s become a very bad situation for the taxpayers that we represent,” said New Castle County Councilman John Cartier. “There’s a lot of unknown here, and (the city) just asks us to pay more.”
The dispute between the two governments has been ongoing for over a decade, with an unknown amount of taxpayer dollars spent on legal fees.
“When we have these debates where we go into arbitration, these carry hidden sums of money that could be well spent paying for the treatment,” said County Councilman Penrose Hollins. “But because these two governments cannot get along, we’re approaching a place where it’s getting to be almost as expensive to try to get along, as it is to treat the sewer.”
Councilman Hollins added that the county determined its share of the flow to be about 75%. Following a city assessment, Wilmington told the county it was closer to 80%. Then, without explanation, the city increased the charges to 82% and now 87%, he said.
The county’s wastewater charges increased from $24.8 million for fiscal year 2021 to at least $28.2 million for fiscal year 2022, according to the resolution. Council says the city has failed to answer the county’s questions and explain the reason for the increases.
Councilman Hollins noted that when the agreement between the city and the county was established decades ago, Wilmington’s population was likely much bigger than the suburban areas’. As Wilmington’s population has declined, the suburbs have grown bigger.
Councilman David Carter noted that WWTP is over 70 years old and has outdated technology, which may be another cause for the rise in charges from the city.
“I think we have an opportunity here to upgrade to new technology, save a lot of money, at least in the long run, and to remove this contentious battle with the city and, hopefully, build better relationships once this is out of the way,” he said.
One alternative brought up by Councilman Carter is spray irrigation, which he said has become popular in his district.
Spray irrigation of reclaimed water has been in use in Delaware since the 1970s, according to state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
Reclaimed water is water that has been treated at a wastewater facility and is then reused in various ways, depending on the level of treatment. The amount of treatment required for reclaimed water depends on how it will be used and the degree of public contact the site has.
The highest level of treatment is required for water being reused on crops for human consumption or in areas where people may frequent, like a park or golf course. Less-treated water can be used on sites where products from the land will be processed before consumption.
Councilman Hollins said the county is also working on connecting more homes to sewer systems and getting rid of individual septic systems, which are an environmental hazard. When a septic system fails, it can contaminate the groundwater or the surface water, contaminating nearby streams and lakes, as well as polluting the drinking-water supply.
“The city of Wilmington is not being a good business partner,” he said. “They are not legally required to show us these documents, and they are exercising their right to do that. We are in arbitration right now, so maybe we’ll be able to come to a solution.”
Wilmington city officials declined to comment on the council’s inquiries about the increasing charges.
The resolution asks the Meyer administration to report the alternative options in their assessment by Jan. 31, 2022.