Oak Ridge’s aging water treatment system needs replacing: who should pay the bill?

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Oak Ridge City leaders are excited about replacing their nearly 80-year-old water treatment system, though it’s currently unknown who exactly will be paying the bill.

Mayor Warren Gooch cited a study, commissioned by the city, that found a $44 million investment in a new plant was the most economically feasible path forward, compared to repairing the existing system or doing nothing. “The plant has passed its useful life […] it isn’t just a City of Oak Ridge issue. It is a national security issue,” Gooch said.

The treatment plant dates back to the city’s founding, as part of the Manhattan Project. It continues to provide clean drinking water to those living there as well as various federal operations. However, its increasing age is presenting increasing risks. Gooch noted just five of the six water intake pumps are working and replacement parts are nonexistent due to their age.

Shira McWaters, Public Works Director for the City of Oak Ridge, said the investment will result in more stability for consumers. She estimated of their daily output, eight million gallons, about half goes to city residents while the rest goes to federal sites.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R – Tennessee) is asking Congress to pay the expense in the form of an earmark. “It’s a large request, but one that’s necessary,” Fleischman said, “for national security and the people of Oak Ridge.” He is hopeful it could receive approval sometime this year.

Fleischmann pointed to the large federal footprint within the city, including ongoing operations which make up billions in already appropriated federal spending, which he noted are key to U.S. priorities. He believes it would be unfair to burden the taxpayers of Oak Ridge with the investment.

“If we look at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, if we look at the Y-12 plant, if we look at the uranium processing facility that we’re building, if we look at the cleanup mission…they all need water. They all need a reliable, safe, dependable water source,” he added.

Gooch hopes that pans out, but noted the city has secured financing in the event lawmakers in Washington decline the spending, half from the Tennessee revolving loan fund and the other from a fund from the Environmental Protection Agency. “It’s going to be done. It has to be done,” Gooch said.

While McWaters noted the treatment system is an “amazing piece of engineering,” given it’s endured across many decades, she’s excited about the advantages ahead, including cutting their carbon footprint. The new system will involve an ultrafiltration membrane, she explained, which allows them to filter particles down to the virus level, which she said will require fewer chemicals for producing clean water.

Gooch said site plans have been approved by the state. The city hopes to distribute requests for proposals in the next 60 days, award a bid in the fall, and have a new state-of-the-art water treatment facility completed within two years.

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