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Cokedale: The little town with a stinky problem

COKEDALE — State Senator Larry Crowder visited Cokedale on October 23 to discuss the continuing saga of what is apparently the sewer lagoon from hell. Crowder listened to the plight of the citizens of this small hamlet just up Highway 12 from Trinidad who are in the eighth year of a project to create a municipal sewer system which will satisfy the EPA, the state, and their pocketbooks. In 1975, Cokedale saw the installation of a clay-lined two-lagoon sewage treatment system. The first pond collected settled solid waste; the second was designed for the aeration and evaporation of liquids. The residents went about their business, assuming the system worked as designed. In 2006, the town received a grant of $825,000 to update their water system, sewer lines, and sewer lagoon. The water system was completed in 2008 and the sewer lines were nearly done in 2010 when the citizens were informed that, for decades, both clay-lined ponds had been losing liquid effluent not by evaporation but by seepage into the ground. In 2007, the town council had hired

Amanda M. Atencio, P.E., C.F.M. of Atencio Engineering to create and implement a design to update the existing evaporative lagoon system. It took several submittals, assistance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, and over three years for the state to finally okay Atencio’s design. Because of “tweaks and overrides,” an additional $250,000 in loans and loan forgiveness were received from the Colorado Water and Power Authority to complete the project. CDPHE inspectors visited the site in 2011 and determined that, since the site did not have the required five acres for an evaporative system, the town would have to upgrade to a three-pond plastic-lined discharging system. In March of 2014, the state engineer signed off on the plan and work began. However, in May, about the time Atencio’s contract was set to expire, the design was determined to be faulty. The inlet pipes were at the wrong angle and perhaps the wrong size. After several volleys of negotiation, Atencio’s contract was not renewed due to cost. Another $160,000 was received through the State Revolving Loan Fund. Then, the excavations punched through an old mining tunnel. In all, the plan had to be “tweaked” 14 times, each time with additional cost. Originally planned as a $825,000 project, the price escalated to $1.5 million. The State of Colorado has lent money for the project at 2½% interest, but paying off the debt seems insurmountable to the 110 or so citizens of the little town which has no businesses, no sales tax base, and mostly fixed incomes. Crowder came to town to “try to find a way to lessen the burden” for the residents of Cokedale and “find solutions so it’s affordable” to stay in Cokedale. Right now, each household pays about $80 per month just for repayment of loans to the state on the sewer project. Their utility costs have risen 250% in the last five years. The project is nearly complete, but the new aeration fans installed in October broke down immediately and had to be sent back to the factory. Mayor Sandra McGonigal says the aerators should be reinstalled and working by late November, at which time Cokedale will have a fully functional sewage treatment system. How they will pay for it is anyone’s guess. For now, the “Concerned Citizens of Cokedale” will have to live with the smell of the lagoons until the system begins to work as planned. As Mayor McGonigal says, “We’re going to have to put up with the stink, but it’s our stink.”