The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

February 29, 2012

City, county utilities look toward ambitious year

By Adam Smith
adam@athensnews-courier.com

— After a severe weather year that saw local utility companies stretch resources more than previously imagined, utility department officials in Athens and Limestone County say they have recovered, for the most part.

Perhaps no utility was more hampered more in 2011 than the Athens Electric Department. The strain began with a harsh winter that brought snow and ice to the county, followed by violent tornadoes on April 27 and dangerous late-summer thunderstorms.

Gary Scroggins, general manager of Athens Utilities, said his department has recovered for the most part from the storms, but there is still work left to be done in neighborhoods that were hardest hit.

“There are some small subdivisions that haven’t been rebuilt yet, but once they start building again, we’ll go in and redo the lines,” he said.

Equally devastated was the Tennessee Valley Authority that had more than 350 transmission structures destroyed across North Alabama and left more than 640,000 without power.

All three units at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant went down on April 27 after main transmission lines to the plant went down in the storm. The reactors were placed in “cold shutdown” mode and relied on power from diesel generators for five days to ensure water temperature remained cool.

After employing 4,000 workers and $25 million on new wire and steel, TVA declared its electrical grid restored in mid-July.

Upcoming projects

Large projects being planned by Athens Utilities include the construction of two new substations to serve the new Carpenter Technology Corporation facility on U.S. 31 and another in East Limestone. The CTC substation will be built for an estimated $3.5 million, while Scroggins said the East Limestone substation would cost about $3 million.

“(East Limestone) has grown so much and the substation we have out there is getting close to capacity,” he said.

As a means of keeping customers in the electricity loop, the utilities department hired Amy Golden last fall as a customer relations manager. Scroggins said she’s been working with potential industries and residents and also spearheaded the department’s first newsletter, designed to keep customers in the loop about projects, programs and how money is being spent.

Scroggins wants to continue building on the customer service aspect and plans to approach the council about purchasing an outage system that would allow a customer to call a number and enter in outage information using their phone.

“It would answer a tremendous amount of calls at any one time so they’re not having to talk directly to a customer service person,” he said previously. “If we have 1,000 people calling at one time, we don’t have 1,000 people to answer the phones.”

Such systems aren’t inexpensive, and could cost as much as $50,000 for installation, hardware and software. He said systems usually require monthly charges that could range from $1,000 to $2,000.

Limestone County Water & Sewer Authority

Also impacted by the severe weather of last year was the county’s water and sewer authority. The April 27 tornadoes damaged the roof of the Turner Treatment Facility on U.S. 31 in Tanner, but authority board chairman Jim Moffatt said repairs are being finalized.

“The community really pulled together for that,” he said. “Everybody lost power and we lost power, but we made a few phone calls and the National Guard came through with generators and fuel.”

Moffatt said the April 27 tornadoes actually pointed problems the authority had not anticipated, but officials found that prior emergency planning had paid off.

“We did find some things we could do better and have improved our plan,” he said.

In January, the authority finalized an agreement with the city of Huntsville to sell 7 miles of sewer line for a little more than $10 million. The agreement provided a nice payday to the authority for future improvements, giving Huntsville an in-road for future development in annexed portions of Limestone County.

And while Huntsville will be taking care of the sewage, water flowing into Huntsville’s residential, commercial and industrial developments will be provided by the Limestone County Water & Sewer Authority.

Moffatt said the authority is working closely with planning officials in Huntsville on site and road plans and wants to ensure both sides are on the same page.

“(Annexation) will mean more business for everybody, but the water lines weren’t placed in the ground by the good Lord,” he said. “We’ve still got to get the water into a drinkable form and that requires engineering and planning.”

Moffatt said one goal is to use the $10 million to upgrade water pipe to some parts of the county were service is poor. The authority developed a water model to keep track of areas most in need of an upgrade.

And despite having a debt in excess of about $60 million, Moffatt said, the water authority remains profitable and has an A+ bond rating. He said the authority has never missed a bond payment and is working to reduce the debt.

“Even with the downturn in the economy and the slowing of growth, we still have positive revenues every year,” he said. “Financially, we’ve got a very healthy bottom line.”

Athens Gas Department

Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks speaks highly of all city departments and department heads, but he loves to brag on the city’s gas department.

“They really do a great job down there,” he said.

Not only is the department consistently profitable, but also its training facility — Leak City — brings hundreds of visitors into the city from all over the state and the southeast. Department manager Steve Carter said this year would be no different, as training sessions will be lined up throughout the spring and summer.

Like Scroggins, Carter said his department is about 90 percent recovered from the April 27 storms, adding that some systems had to be reconstructed.

The department is also working with officials to help transition to green technology through using compressed natural gas in vehicles. Though still in preliminary stages, Carter said the city is considering purchasing a CNG-powered garbage truck. He’s also had conversations with Scroggins about the possibility of using CNG-powered meter-reading trucks.

“Manufacturers are coming out with CNG engines, and as the country moves to green energy, you’ll see other (cities) moving that way,” he said.

The gas department will also play a major role in the development of the $500 million Carpenter Technology Corporation facility. As part of Athens’ incentives package, the city agreed to supply gas pipelines and manpower for an estimated value of $375,000.

Athens Sewer Department

The city’s sewer department is staying busy these days, but water services manager John Stockton doesn’t consider that a bad thing. He said the city is in good shape for future growth, whether it be residential, commercial or industrial.

“We’ve got a treatment capacity that can easily handle doubling the population of this town,” he said. “If an industry needs a million to a million and a half gallons of water, we can handle it.”

One the department’s ongoing projects is providing sewer services to about 80 homes in the Whitfield and Winslow subdivisions. The project dates back to 2009 after residents voiced health concerns related to plumbing.

Stockton said he’s now working to find an easement to install sewer lines, but added it has been difficult to find in subdivisions that were not built with sewer service in mind. He said the plan is to put work out to bid by the end of the month and hopefully have a contractor working on the project by the first of May.

City officials have estimated the cost to install sewer to be about $900,000.

Stockton said another plan on the horizon is to run a 24-inch sewer pipe out of the Canebrake pumping station up Piney Creek to U.S. 72. He estimated it would be a $2.5 million project, but said it could lead to future growth in Athens.