Selbyville wins emergency grant for water treatment

As troublesome as Selbyville’s water problems have been, the Town has landed in a safety net of state and federal funding. The Town recently earned a $500,000 emergency grant toward its new water plant.

Between the USDA Rural Development grant and a previous state Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program, Selbyville will get more than $3 million in free money toward the new plant.

After years of gasoline additive methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) leaking into its groundwater, Selbyville is adding another layer of water filtration. Construction on the second treatment facility has begun behind Town Hall, across the street from the existing facility. Work should conclude in April of 2017.

“This project is getting accomplished at no additional cost to taxpayers of Selbyville,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Coons at an Aug. 8 celebration of the grant. “This is the sort of thing for which you pay taxes in the first place, which is having federal agencies that set air quality, water quality standards, and then provide resources when there’s an emergency or an unexpected challenge.

USDA Rural Development State Director Bill McGowan compared groundwater to an ant farm. A contaminant in one corner can take years to work through an entire system, and the best solution is flushing. But it takes a while.

“It’s a big, complicated system, and when things happen, it’s a mess,” McGowan said.

Decades ago, the government reduced smog by requiring MTBE additives, but without fully understanding them.

“You don’t see smog in the air like you used to,” noted U.S. Sen. Tom Carper. But that came at an unexpected cost. Science is still learning how contaminants behave and affect groundwater. But in the meantime, the government is trying to fix the problems that have resulted.

“So this $500,000 from an emergency community action water grant is a great example of what we are able do when we deploy federal resources and partner them with a substantial contribution from state resources,” said Coons, who earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and chemistry.

Delaware had previously provided technical assistance with investigating the contamination, as well as a Hazardous Substance Cleanup Act Program grant of $123,700, meant to help problems like this, said DNREC Secretary David Small.

More than 80 percent of Delawareans are on public water systems, but it’s an expensive thing for towns to manage, said Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health. That’s why the Division offers low-interest loans.

The Town already won a $2.7 million loan from Delaware Drinking Water Revolving Fund (federal and some state money). With 0 percent interest, the loan will also be 100 percent forgiven when the filtration project is completed, essentially making it grant money.

Now, this new grant lets Selbyville keep its promise to finish the project and avoid a huge repayment plan.

Selbyville took advantage of a similar $1.4 million loan to build two new wells after older wells were contaminated with MTBE in 2009. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund provided that 0-repayment loan in 2012.

“We thought we had it beat with the new wells,” said Mayor Clifton Murray.

“We’ve got to have clean water. The residents are entitled to it. … We feel pretty confident that we’ve got it beat this time,” said Murray, thanking everyone involved, including Town Councilman Rick Duncan, who brought expertise from his day job at the Delaware Rural Water Association.

“We have a great little town. … We’d just like to get through this thing, really,” Murray said. “We didn’t have the resources to begin to do a lot with it,” he added, mentioning the help Selbyville got from all levels of government.

It takes courage to ask for help, said McGowan.

“Today is really a celebration of partnership,” McGowan said. “It is this quiet role of government that is sitting there as a safety net,” not just to write a check, but to connect people who make things happen.

“Some folks haven’t managed drinking water challenges as responsibly as they should have. You have. You were on it,” Small said. “You were working with the appropriate partners … to make sure your drinking water was safe and the public in your town was being protected.”

During the celebration, state Rep. Rich Collins (R-41) raised eyebrows when he reminded the group that federal grants often have “strings attached,” but, he allowed, “Hopefully, this is not one of those programs.”

Also present were state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) and County Councilman Rob Arlett (R-5th).

The two towers

The Town’s MTBE filtration system has two simple air-stripping towers, around 30 feet tall, behind the existing water plant. The columns are filled with a material like plastic balls in a children’s playpen. Water flows downward over all that surface area, while air is pumped upward. MTBE is a volatile organic that evaporates when it touches air, so exposure automatically pulls it from the water.

This is not a replacement, but a second plant. Some chemical treatments are being moved to the new building, but others remain in the old plant. The capacity hasn’t changed, and water will flow from the old plant to be finished in the new one before flowing onward.

Construction should finish around April of 2017. Selbyville wanted to build a similar project around 1991 but couldn’t afford it.

The Town bought its current water treatment plant in 1934, “used,” Duncan said. It was upgraded in 1994 with filters, new electronics, headworks and more.

Close to compliance

While Selbyville deals with MTBE, another problem is pelting rocks at Selbyville’s window: another chemical is showing up in violation levels.

In June, Duncan announced that Selbyville’s water had high levels of total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), a disinfection byproduct. The maximum allowed is 80 parts per billion, but Selbyville’s recent four-quarter average was 124 ppb.

The water is safe to drink, and boiling isn’t required, Duncan said. But vulnerable populations can be affected by high concentrations of TTHM.

Selbyville was still in violation during the Aug. 8 grant festivities, although readings have decreased, Duncan said. After an Aug. 9 retest, private lab results showed Selbyville to be mere points away from the 80 ppb federal limit.