Magnolia aldermen heard proposals from competing engineering firms Tuesday and agreed to pay one of them upwards of $35,000 to draw up plans for an upgraded sewage lagoon, even though the other agreed to do the work for free.

The move to hire WGK Engineers of Brookhaven for surveying and planning work on the city’s sewage lagoons is a step toward upgrading the city’s outdated sewer infrastructure into compliance with environmental regulations.

WGK’s estimated $25,000 to $35,000 sum includes engineering, design and consulting fees but excludes any resulting legal fees, Mayor Anthony Witherspoon noted.  

“We have to have a construction plan by the end of the year, so it’s imperative,” Witherspoon said.

“Your engineer is like your coach,” WGK lead environmental engineer Gregory Gearhart said. “You rely on their knowledge and on their experience.”

Gearhart discussed the issue with the board in October and told aldermen WGK had completed work on several wastewater treatment systems, from Osyka to Jackson.

“We are judged based on the success of our past projects, and we’ve done many of them,” he said.

WGK will assist the city in preparing a plan of action to be presented to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality by the end of the year. State officials previously handed down a 2021 deadline for the city to come up with a solution.

The board selected the WGK proposal over an attempt by Neel-Schaffer Inc. to rework a 2015 analysis of the city’s wastewater management system for free in order to correct an earlier oversight.

“We should have provided the service to the city in the first place,” said Doug Wimberly of Neel-Schaffer. “It was an oversight on our part.”

Wimberly said the MDEQ agreement is based on a report prepared by the firm in 2015, so they are already familiar with the job.

Wimberly asked the board to allow Neel-Schaffer to amend the 2015 report and provide solutions to meet regulations. He said the firm would work with both the city and the MDEQ to modify the original directive.

Of main concern are high levels of ammonium nitrate runoff from the city’s north lagoon into the nearby Tangipahoa River.

“There’s not much a Class 1 lagoon can do to curb the release of ammonium nitrate,” Witherspoon said, referring to the current treatment system in place.

The city had been facing two expensive options: Pay to build infrastructure to send wastewater to McComb’s treatment plant and enter into an agreement for the wastewater treatment; or upgrade to a fully mechanical lagoon system.

However, under the administration of President Donald Trump, environmental regulations have lapsed, and now city officials believe they can upgrade existing lagoons more cheaply and still manage to comply with standards.

The likely fix, under the current climate of relaxed regulations, will be to upgrade to a Class 2 semi-mechanical lagoon that includes some features such as aerators.

Witherspoon said the upgrade would save money compared to pumping wastewater to McComb or building a Class 4 mechanical lagoon.

“This approach is millions of dollars less than both” of the other options, he said.

Magnolia also is the seat of major industry, with firms including Sanderson Farms, International Paper, Weyerhaeuser and Croft Metals all operating within city limits, and having to treat their wastewater further complicates the issue, Witherspoon said.

“As a small city, we have a lot of industry, especially compared to other cities of around the same size,” Witherspoon said.

In other business, aldermen:

• Paid $32,600 to Durrell Design Group PLLC of Jackson for facility assessment and planning on the new fire and police station.

• Adopted a resolution recognizing Municipal Government Week beginning Jan. 20.

• Approved travel for city clerk Cynthia Richardson to attend clerk certification training in Pearl in April.

• Approved travel for city attorney Charles Miller to attend the Winter Mississippi Municipal Attorneys Association training in Jackson in January.

• Approved travel for public works director Eric Jones to attend the Mississippi Rural Water Association short course prep and short course in Raymond in January and the Annual Management & Technical Conference & Exhibition in Jackson in March.

• Scheduled the City of Magnolia Mardi Gras Ball for Feb. 21 at the Pike County Multi-purpose Complex on Quinlivan Road and the Mardi Gras Parade and Festival for Feb. 22.

• Approved the closure of streets on West Railroad Avenue from Bay Street to Magnolia Street for the Mardi Gras parade and festival.  

• Allowed police Sgt. James Davis to sell one week of vacation.

• Approved a peddlers license exemption for business owners selling on the sidewalk or in front of their business or in the downtown area.

• Paid David Solomon of OSS Law Enforcement Advisors $1,800 for templates of the police and fire department policy manuals.  

• Approved travel for Assistant Police Chief Sonya Woodall to attend the seventh annual One Loud Voice Conference and CAST Symposium in Biloxi in March.

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