The long-planned $52.5 million ocean outfall project in Rehoboth Beach has won the necessary environmental permits, officials announced May 25.
In a written order, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Shawn Garvin said Rehoboth met all the regulatory conditions to approve the permits. The approvals pave the way for Rehoboth to begin work on a project that has been more than a decade in the making.
“The department finds that the applicants meet the department’s regulatory requirements, and the record supports the department’s decision to issue the approvals for the ocean outfall,” Garvin’s order states. He also noted opponents of the plan had presented significant arguments, but concluded, “the department’s experts recommended approval of the applications after consideration of these public comments.”
Mayor Sam Cooper said he was elated at the news.
“It’s been a long road. We’re finally at the end of this part of it,” he said. “It’s a good plan, and as a good plan, it ought to go through.”
Commissioner Stan Mills agreed. “I’m pleased that we finally have the go-ahead. It’s just in the nick of time to meet the deadline to get effluent out of the canal,” he said.
Rehoboth is under a consent order to stop dumping its treated effluent into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal by June 1, 2018.
“I believe Secretary Gavin has done his due diligence, and I believe the city has done its due diligence,” Mills said.
Part of Garvin’s due diligence was talking to groups for the outfall and against it.
“These are very dedicated individuals who have spent a great deal of time studying the issues and participating in the public process,” he said. “I wanted to glean as much information as possible from them before I made a decision. I sincerely appreciate the time they spent in discussion with me and the insights they provided the department.”
Chris Bason, executive director of the Center for the Inland Bays said, “This is huge for the Inland Bays. Removing the outfall from the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal is going to make remarkable improvements to the water quality in Rehoboth Bay.”
Bason said 18,000 pounds of nutrients annually pumped into Rehoboth Bay have caused nutrient pollution in a low-flushing system, which has led to water clouded by algae, low dissolved-oxygen levels for marine life and degraded habitat.
“The ocean is so wildly different in its flushing. It's almost not even a comparison,” he said. Bason said models found the effluent discharged into the ocean will disperse within minutes, and any impacts will be localized to the ocean floor within a few hundred feet of the outfall.
Commissioner Patrick Gossett said, “I think it’s the right move. I think this project has been carefully considered. We’re close to the resolution of a very long process.”
Jonathan Starkey, spokesman for Gov. John Carney, said, “The governor is confident that Secretary Garvin reviewed all available information and acted appropriately.”
Opponents dismayed by decision
While city officials were happy with the news, opponents of the outfall were dismayed.
John Doerfler, chair of Delaware Surfrider, said Garvin called him directly as the member of a stakeholder group who met earlier with the new environmental secretary.
“Obviously, we’re extremely upset with the decision,” Doerfler. “We’re going to be looking into any additional actions that can be taken.”
One positive to come out of this, Doerfler said, is the stormwater study conducted by the town that showed the infrastructure was in poor shape. It’s really concerning the amount of chemicals and bacteria getting into the waters near the shoreline, he said.
“Surfrider hopes to be able to work with Rehoboth to make sure the stormwater is taken care of in an appropriate manner,” said Doerfler.
Former DNREC Secretary Collin O’Mara said on Twitter, “Horribly shortsighted decision by city of Rehoboth to risk $3B+ tourism industry and waste 50B gallons of wastewater.”
At a May 8 workshop meeting, Cooper blasted O’Mara for sitting on the project for more than a year, saying the city would be done with the project by now if not for the former secretary’s inaction.
Suzanne Thurman, executive director at the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute in Lewes, said she was heartbroken by the outfall approval.
“I think what we're most distressed about is it seemed to be an unreasonable approach to managing wastewater,” Thurman said. “I feel certain that there will be next steps of opposition.”
Thurman said her organization hoped Rehoboth would seek alternatives to ocean outfall, such as constructed wetlands.
“We hoped that as things progressed and new technology became available, more affordable and more practical, that the city of Rehoboth would highly value the health of the oceans,” she said, “and that they would be more open-minded to thoroughly reviewing alternatives brought to them.”
The proposed location of the pipe falls along an ancient migration route for large whales, including the humpback and North American right whale, which is severely endangered, Thurman said.
“I think there will be many challenges to this decision, which unfortunately prolong the process of getting the outfall out of the Inland Bays,” she said. “But the ocean is not disconnected from the Inland Bays. It's important to remember the ocean doesn't belong to any community, and the impacts of one community on this ecosystem are going to be far-reaching.”
Private water companies Tidewater and Artesian, which had both lobbied for the city’s business, had different views on Garvin’s decision affirming ocean outfall.
Artesian CEO Dian Taylor said, “We believe the options have been appropriately explored and with the deadlines looming, we understand and support the decision that has been made by Secretary Garvin. It is our desire to see the city of Rehoboth and Sussex County be successful."
Tidewater CEO Gerald Esposito said his company's proposed land application alternative would cost at least $5 million less than the outfall.
“No only would we be saving millions for city residents, but this is going to be subsidized through state revolving fund loans for a project that doesn't need to be this expensive,” he said. “We're still standing by, ready to help the city once they get their bids and find out it's too expensive.”
Esposito said he suspects the ocean outfall will continued to be delayed when inevitable litigation – which would not be brought by Tidewater – challenges Garvin's recent approval.
“Unfortunately, this was not unexpected,” he said of Garvin's approval. “This is not over. We stand by our position that land application was never seriously considered and, if it were, it would come out to be a better environmental and economic solution.”
Cooper said the outfall project involves taking the treated wastewater from an upgraded and improved treatment plant through the city to Deauville Beach and then 6,000 feet offshore.
The next steps in the process are to solicit bids for the three areas of work: the force main, improvements to the city’s wastewater treatment facility and the outfall itself. He said contractors have indicated to him that they would like to have contracts by Tuesday, Aug. 1. The city has planned to begin work in early October and wrap by April. Cooper said it is very possible for the city to meet the June 1 deadline.
In recent weeks, city commissioners have discussed avoiding problems that have plagued the ongoing City Hall project, which has run over budget in part due to change orders during construction. Mills said he hopes the commissioners will soon have a discussion on the proper process for vetting and approving change orders, including a dollar threshold above which commissioners would approve changes.
Rehoboth had presented its permit applications to DNREC in November, and at the time, it was figured that the permits would be approved by February. However, after the governorship passed from Jack Markell to John Carney, Carney’s pick as DNREC secretary, Garvin, saw his confirmation held up in the state Senate, deadlocked until Democrat Stephanie Hanson was elected in the 10th Senatorial District.
Shortly after Garvin took office in March, he met with Rehoboth officials, including Cooper and Mills, promising to make a decision within 30 days, a deadline that came and went.
The Rehoboth outfall project has been contemplated since the late 1990s. The city was mandated by a federal judge to stop dumping its treated effluent into the Inland Bays and at the time, was given until December 2014 to make it happen. In 2009, the city commissioners agreed that the city’s preferred alternative was ocean outfall, which involves pumping the treated effluent into the ocean.
After the city received an extension on its timeline from DNREC, the city’s voters narrowly approved borrowing $52.5 million for the project at a June 2015 referendum. The $52.5 million outfall project breaks down, according to city figures, as $25 million for the outfall pipe, $10 million for upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and $12.5 million for an upgraded biosolids treatment facility. The city has already received the go-ahead for funding for the plant and outfall portions of the project from the Delaware Water Infrastructure Council.
To view the order, go to http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/Info/Pages/SecOrders_Permits.aspx