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Terre Haute Prepares Mammoth Plan to Keep Sewage from Wabash

  • Terre Haute City Engineer Chuck Ennis

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

    Holding a mason jar full of dried wood pulp, City Engineer Chuck Ennis explains the old International Paper site has tanks full of the bark-like material. If the city wants to use the tanks for storage, they must be cleaned thoroughly.

  • Terre Haute Wastewater Utility

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

    Located near interstates and major roads, Terre Haute's Wastewater Utility emits an unpleasant odor that's sullied the city's reputation.

  • Terre Haute Wastewater Utility

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

  • Terre Haute Wastewater Utility

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

    Sewer water, containing both solid objects and a combination of liquids, is treated in a series of troughs and lagoons.

  • Terre Haute Wastewater Utility

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

  • Terre Haute Economic Development President Steve Witt

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

    Improving the city's aging and insufficient sewer system could spur economic development, so says Terre Haute Economic Development President Steve Witt.

  • CSO

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    Photo: Daniel Robison/ WFIU

Part Two of  Two-Part Series

Previously: Part I: Terre Haute Backed Up with $130 Million Sewer Issue

The desk of City Engineer Chuck Ennis could be the staging ground for an excavation. Papers, files and mysterious mason jars filled with brown flakey stuff litter his oak table top…

“Here’s a sample of it. You can see what it looks like. You can smell it. It won’t hurt you a bit. I’m not setting you up for anything,” Chuck Ennis said, laughing.

This is old wood pulp, which, appropriately, came from the former International Paper site. Over the next few years, Ennis says the city will spend millions removing the substance and prepping the property to store post-rain wastewater, which includes raw sewage and toxic chemicals.

“We have to store that water until we get a bright sunny day like today. And then we drain it back into the system and treat it,” Ennis said.

But while the wastewater sits in the pond, some worry it will smell. Terre Haute has long been criticized for its odor — namely, the stench of rotting sewage. Mayor Duke Bennett has pledged to eliminate those odors within the next few years by making changes to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

But the promise of an odorless Terre Haute is exactly why John Mutchner dislikes the International Paper solution so much. He’s the president of Riverscape – a non-profit community organization dedicated to the improvement of the Wabash River. Mutchner says something about the mayor’s solution smells funny.

“It’s a hard thing to prove. You can’t see a smell. And when it’s done and there is a smell, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. It’s called combined sewer overflow for a reason. It combines with the sewer,” Mutchner said.

“Their concerns are unfounded.”

That’s Mayor Bennett.

“There’s a lot of stuff being said that’s just not true trying to scare people to try and convince people not to do that,” Bennett said.

But local economic development president Steve Witt – an ally of Bennett’s – admits an open pond with sewage, adding an additional stench, isn’t good for business.

“Utilizing the lagoon cell from International Paper could pose some odor issues in the future,” Witt said.

Terre Haute is not alone. Across the country, cities with century-old sewer systems are scrambling to find ways to avoid dumping raw sewage into public waters. Riverscape’s John Mutchner admits it’ll be difficult for the city to balance its obligations to the federal government, costs to utility payers and the appearance and smell of the riverfront.

Wastewater Utility head Mark Thompson chewing on a dip of tobacco, says the plan is not the best option, but it’s the best option the city can afford.

“I think it’s the best bang for our buck. I don’t know if it’s the best solution. The pie in the sky goal is to have no CSOs.  And we just can’t afford that.”

While the city is planning to spend $130 million under the current set of rules, Mayor Duke Bennett admits those guidelines are fluid. As is the cost…And the 20-year timeline…

“As long as they don’t come to us, 17, 18 years from now saying that now you have to deal with all your storm water for example. You know we run storm water directly to the river. But we believe at some point they’re going to tell us we’re going to have to treat that,” Bennett said.

Without a jump in sewer rates, which will triple, the city could not pay for the mandated, yet unfunded, project. And if the new system doesn’t work correctly, the city will be fined each time it fails. And Bennett says those fines, too, will be passed on to Terre Haute taxpayers.

“They’ll end up paying it one way or the other,” Bennett said.

With an issue so flush with complexities and floating targets, Bennett says it’s anyone guess how much the project will eventually cost and when it will actually work.

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