U.S. Water News Online
HUNTINGDON, Pa. — Few residents in this central Pennsylvania town regularly, if ever, head to the Chesapeake Bay to enjoy its many recreational opportunities, though they may be saddled with higher sewer bills to help clean it up.
A 2010 deadline looms for Pennsylvania to comply with federal mandates to reduce pollution that flows into waterways that eventually empty into the 200-mile-long Chesapeake, the nation's largest estuary and one of its great natural resources.
Improvements to sewage treatment plants could cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and that is scaring municipalities in the bay's vast watershed, which includes parts of six states.
"They're looking at it and saying, 'My God, how are we going to pay for this?"' said John Brosius, deputy director for the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association.
In Huntingdon, a foul odor wafts across the grounds of the wastewater treatment facility along the snowy banks of the Juniata River — about 200 miles and a 31/2-hour drive to the mouth of the Chesapeake. Borough manager Ken Myers must help guide an estimated $10 million project to upgrade a plant that operates on an annual $1.6 million budget.
With financial aid from the state or federal government unlikely, borough council last year approved a 40 percent increase in sewer rates over four years to foot the bill.
"Government makes regulations and provides no assistance to accomplish them," Myers said.
A matrix of Pennsylvania streams and other waterways feed into the Susquehanna River, which in turn empties into the Chesapeake. Pennsylvania contributes more sewage, farm runoff and other pollutants than any of its watershed neighbors, so environmentalists are keeping a close eye on the state's progress.
"Really, the health of the Chesapeake is reflective of the individual streams in the watershed," said Harry Campbell, staff scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Pennsylvania office. "If the bay isn't healthy, quite frankly the majority of our streams aren't healthy."
The foundation has been trumpeting the "Save the Bay" cause for decades, trying to reverse the Chesapeake's decline from the days when Captain John Smith first explored the then-pristine waters in the 1600s.
Pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous feed algae that can shield the sunlight that underwater plants need to grow. Algal blooms consume oxygen when they decay — enough so that it can deprive areas of the bay of sufficient enough oxygen to support aquatic life.
Yet despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by states already to help clean up the Chesapeake, the foundation says much more work is needed. Last year, the foundation gave the Chesapeake's health a grade of "D" for the ninth straight year.
Foundation officials are placing their hope, however, in an agreement reached in 2000 by Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the federal government which aims to remove the bay from the nation's "dirty waters list" by 2010.
New water quality standards in 2005 under the Federal Clean Water Act turned the pollution reduction goals into a federal mandate, noted Pennsylvania's environmental protection secretary, Kathleen McGinty. Each state was left to develop plans to achieve the goals under the supervision of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Pennsylvania gave ample warning to localities, and invited local governments and environmental advocates to the negotiating table to devise the state's blueprint, McGinty said. Separate cleanup strategies targeted farms and agriculture businesses, which contribute the majority of the pollution into the Chesapeake watershed.
But it is the cost of needed sewage treatment upgrades that is causing sticker-shock among local officials now faced with actually doing the work and paying the bills. The first phase of improvements due in 2010 affects the state's 63 largest facilities in the watershed.
A total of 184 treatment plants are affected, and cost estimates vary. The state has said the entire bill could be about $620 million, while the municipal authorities association said it could be at least $1 billion.
Some help is available from state grants and low-interest loans, including about $180 million from the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority dedicated just to sewage upgrades.
"People are struggling with limited resources to do a lot of big tasks and this is just another one," McGinty said.
But many localities are upset that state government hasn't provided more money, especially after funding plans were approved in two other states.
In Maryland, a $2.50-a-month "flush tax" on sewer bills helps pay for improvements for wastewater plants and septic owners. In Virginia, Gov. Tim Kaine in December said his state has spent or committed $700 million through 2010.
Williamsport faces an $83 million upgrade to comply with the Chesapeake cleanup plan, and officials there said quarterly sewer rates could triple to nearly $190 in five years.
"Everybody is wondering why, on a statewide basis, the state doesn't step up to the plate in central Pennsylvania," said Walt Nicholson, acting executive director of the city sanitary authority.
In Huntingdon, the average monthly sewer bill was roughly $20 last year; that could rise by about $8 a month in 2011.
The Capital Region Council of Governments is weighing whether to file a lawsuit challenging the cleanup mandate. The Harrisburg-area group has drawn interest and donations from across the state, said Perry Albert, the council's executive director.
One of those interested municipalities is Tyrone, which faces a potential $4 million upgrade, a cost expected to borne by local businesses and other customers.
Ivan Riggle, a compliance manager with Albermarle Corp. in Tyrone, said businesses are closely monitoring project costs. Albermarle makes specialty chemicals for consumer electronics, petroleum processing and various other industries.
"Everyone will have to pay," Riggle said. "The bottom line is it's going to increase our costs."
McGinty faulted the Bush administration for ignoring the need to improve aging public infrastructure.
She said President Bush's latest budget proposal offers $27 million in grant money for the state infrastructure investment authority's sewage program, down more than 50 percent from last year.
"Instead of matching new mandates with new dollars, the federal government has cut those dollars," McGinty said.
There are other options for localities besides costly upgrades, DEP said, including one that allows municipalities to purchase "credits" from farms elsewhere that have reduced pollution to a greater extent than required.
But that alternative hasn't caught on with municipalities hesitant to rely on others to reduce pollution, and treatment facilities need periodic upgrades anyway, said Brosius, of the municipal authorities association.
Even more costly projects await.
McGinty cited a 2004 federal survey that said the state needs nearly $20 billion in improvements to drinking water and sewer infrastructure needs beyond the Chesapeake requirements.
But first there are the Chesapeake upgrades to worry about, and it's not just municipal officials fretting. The bay and its tributaries are used by thousands every year for fishing, sailing and other recreational activities.
Others make their livelihood on the waterways, from those who haul crab to people like Brian Shumaker, owner of New Cumberland-based Susquehanna River Guides. Shumaker, 42, also fishes in the bay for leisure several times a year.
Shumaker's work is limited to the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers, and he said business has slowed in recent years because increased pollution has made it more difficult to fish. He doesn't mind paying higher sewer rates if it leads to cleaner water.
"It makes sense. The Susquehanna is the largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay," Shumaker said. "Everything goes downhill and it all gets dumped into the bay.
Return to the
U.S. Water News Archives page
Return to the U.S. Water
Use a comma to separate e-mail addresses:
Hi, I thought you might like to read this article.