Some area communities have the benefit of finding a niche business to help gain revenues to help offset the dependence on property tax revenue as a main source of operational funding. The City of Seaford has its own electric business and Rehoboth Beach has parking meter revenue.
Not to be outdone, the small town of Laurel has its own niche business and it is based on gaining revenue from what most people would consider offensive in and of itself. Laurel brings in a sizeable income from contractors who haul into the town their loads of septic waste collected largely from residential and businesses that do not have access to a municipal septic treatment system.
A couple of decades ago the town made a significant investment in the upgrade of its waste treatment facility. The system was designed to ensure the treatment plant could handle Laurel’s residential and commercial growth for a good many years. Limited growth has enabled the town to maintain a fair amount of capacity and it has been put to good use.
Before one passes judgement on the town’s acceptance of outsider’s septic waste, it is important to recognize what this has meant to the town’s taxpayers in terms of helping to minimize the increases to property taxes and user fees.
One who makes it a point to tout the benefits of the treatment of outside waste is Laurel Mayor John Shwed. Finance Director Mary Intracaso reads each month during the public Mayor and Council meeting the septic receiving report. The report documents the collection of waste hauler fees. Following this presentation, Shwed most generally reiterates what this business means to the town.
“I believe the people of Laurel are very fortunate that we have the ability to generate several thousand dollars from septic receiving,” he said. “Some towns in Delaware generate a significant amount of revenue by reselling electricity. I look at septic receiving for Laurel in a similar manner. Our taxpayers benefit because the fees collected from the waste haulers who use our plant offset a significant portion of the Town’s budget. If we did not have this source of revenue we would have to raise taxes or fees or make a significant cut in services.”
The value of the “septic receiving enterprise” is reflected in the town’s operating budget. Over the past three years, the treatment of waste from contractors bringing it into the treatment plant has averaged almost 900,000 a year. As of April 30, 2019, when the town was developing the FY 2020 budget, the septic receiving station had clocked over $894,000 in revenue. By the end of the 2019 fiscal year in June, the septic receiving businesses reaped over $1.4 million.
Laurel’s Finance Manager, Mary Intracaso said the septic enterprise has been forecasted in the 2020 fiscal year budget with a revenue of just over $900,000, including permit fees that waste haulers must pay in order to unload at the wastewater treatment plant. She said each hauler pays a $50 permit fee. “This year as of April 30, we had just over 20 waste haulers who had paid the permit fee, but only about 12 of those used the service on a consistent basis throughout the year,” she said.
Over the past 14 months, the septic receiving enterprise has shown monthly revenue that rarely falls below $60,000 and in some months, such as July 2018, showed revenue at about $120,000. Laurel Public works Director, James Foskey, said the average monthly load of septic waste brought into the plant runs between 850,000 to just over 1 million gallons.
He said the outside waste haulers are licensed by the state and the Laurel septic receiving station is an automated process. “We have what we call a Septic Receiving Unit (SRU) that the haulers are able to access by the use of their individual assigned pin code,” Foskey said. “They hook into the system and unload the waste. The unit electronically calculates how much waste each hauler brings into the facility and we get a daily print out.”
Foskey said the SRU also detects any foreign materials that could cause harm to the system, such as grease, and alerts the wastewater plant to ensure that the hauler knows that only septic waste can be processed.
He said the waste coming into the waste treatment plant is septic waste, but on occasions, the Proximity Malt plant on US 13, south of Laurel, has used the septic receiving plant to unload wastewater that is the result of its malting process. However, Foskey said the Malt plant is not a regular user of the Laurel septic receiving station. The business is investigating its own on-site source of wastewater treatment, or possibly land application in some cases.
Foskey said the Laurel wastewater treatment plant underwent upgrades about 10 years ago and capacity at the plant was enhanced. He said there is plenty of capacity at the plant to handle the outside waste haulers and it in no way creates a hardship on the plant, or encroaches on its use for the treatment of septic for the community.
There have long been environmental concerns by state and county officials who worry about the overuse of private septic systems, which sometimes deteriorate and create leaks that can pollute ground water. As far back as 1981, when the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental (DNREC) conducted a Rural Wastewater Management Study, there has been worry related to the failure of private septic systems and the potential impact on the environment.
However, the study was intended to look more at why these systems fail and how regulatory action could be implemented to help in preventing it, there was still a clear message about depending on these systems moving into the future. “The effluent from individual septic systems is a major source of groundwater recharge in some areas; and if on-site systems are improperly designed, installed or maintained they can be a threat to groundwater and surface water quality,” according to the study.
For this reason, there have been governmental efforts to find ways to eliminate private septic systems whenever possible, and urge connection to public septic systems such as municipal waste treatment systems. If this should occur in a dramatic sense in the coming years it could affect the septic receiving enterprise Laurel has come to appreciate as part of its municipal economy.
However, Foskey and Shwed concur that this is not a concern in the short term. Foskey said he feels that properties like those in the rural landscape of western Sussex County simply do not have convenient access to a public septic system and he does not see this being any different for quite a few years to come.
Mayor Shwed says although there is a certain eventuality to the abandoning of private septic system, it is not coming “overnight.” He also feels that the town has ways to address this over time.
“I believe septic receiving will be a viable business for the Town of Laurel well into the future. I do not doubt that environmental regulations will eventually force more homes and businesses in Sussex County to abandon septic systems, but I believe it will not happen overnight,” he said. “As Laurel grows both residentially and commercially, the water and sewer fees from new construction will offset any losses in septic receiving.”