The Pittsburg City Commission this week took a significant initial step toward building a new wastewater treatment plant, a project expected to ultimately cost $35- to $40 million and take two years to construct.


The commission approved a contract with Earles Engineering and Inspection, Inc., on Tuesday for more than $5.1 million for the design phase of the project.


In presenting the proposal to the commission, Deputy City Manager Jay Byers said the city’s need for a new plant has long been under discussion.


"As you probably know, our wastewater treatment plant is 50 years old," Byers said. "In fact portions of it are approaching 70 years old, which really takes the plant to near the end of its useful life."


Byers noted that it would be difficult for the existing plant to meet new regulatory requirements that will soon be in place, and that it is also near its capacity, meaning a new plant will be necessary if the city sees significant residential, commercial, or industrial growth.


"This is a long term deal," Byers said. "It's the biggest project I’m likely to do while I’m here in Pittsburg."


Byers said that in initial planning for the new wastewater treatment plant, the city also explored the possibility that the plant could serve surrounding areas outside Pittsburg’s city limits, and aside from the Pittsburg wastewater plant, the contract approved this week also includes design work for a planned Sugar Creek and Frontenac Pump Station.


"So through this process, whenever we moved into the regional plan, SugarCreek had approached the city and started some of that discussion because of some of their future needs," said Director for Public Utilities Matt Bacon. "That brought us to the table with the City of Frontenac and SugarCreek," he said, and talks have been ongoing.


"So this memorandum of understanding sets basically a time table for them to formally let us know that they want to be a part of our design and process because that takes into account some of their lagoons and how that fits in, and then of course the part of having a whole other lift station to handle that capacity and demand and some of the biological needs."


Adam Lusker, representing SugarCreek, the meat processing and packing company with a facility in Frontenac, also spoke at the commission meeting.


"Obviously I think you all know that the City of Pittsburg provides us water and takes our wastewater, which we produce quite a bit of it due to washdown and the processing that we do, manufacturing bacon," he said.


Lusker said SugarCreek has a future goal of building a larger facility similar to one it has in Indiana.


"We’d love to build it in Crawford County near our plant now, so that’s going to require more water and more wastewater," he said, "so we’ve been in talks with the City of Frontenac and the City of Pittsburg for quite a while."


City Manager Daron Hall said Frontenac is its own community with its own budget and decisions to make.


"We have a great working relationship with them right now. They are aware that we’re going to have to move forward with the design of this whether they’re in or not," he said, adding that the city would expect Frontenac to weigh in and make a decision before construction starts on the project, which would likely be a 60-day window.


"I don’t think there would be anything more we’d say about how Frontenac’s going to approach it," Hall said. "I know they’re looking at it and we’re in constant communication with them."


Whether it partners with the City of Pittsburg or not, Frontenac needs to make improvements to its water and sewer system as required by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), and has approved a loan agreement with KDHE for up to slightly more than $12 million for those water system improvements.


Although it did not come up during the wastewater treatment plant discussion, SugarCreek has been connected to a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Crawford County, and later in the city commission meeting this week Commissioner Chuck Munsell asked if there was any way to know how many of the local coronavirus cases confirmed in recent weeks were tied to the bacon plant.


Mayor Dawn McNay said the Crawford County Health Department is not likely to officially report that number.


"At this point it doesn’t really matter," she said. "What matters is that the individuals are contacted and instructed on what they need to do to keep them and everyone else safe, and we each need to take personal responsibility for our own safety."


Both Rebecca Adamson, Crawford County’s former public health officer, and Linda Bean, the county’s new deputy public health officer, however, have said that not all of the new cases confirmed since the beginning of June, when there had been less than 10 cases identified since the start of the pandemic, were connected to SugarCreek.


"We are starting to see some cases pop up at other industries," Bean said Friday.


KDHE was reporting 246 coronavirus cases in Crawford County on Friday.