Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That’s the situation the City of Ronceverte finds itself in about now. The city is anxiously awaiting the ruling of a judge to find out whether a new waste water plant project, which they’ve been seeking to build for the past 10 years, will be overruled or allowed to be built.
Opposition to the project began early this year when the city of Ronceverte adopted an ordinance to increase its sewer rates. The ordinance proposed increases of residential rates by 80.1 %, commercial rates by 79.3%, public authority rates by 80.3% and resale customer rates by 84.1%.
The Greenbrier Public Service District No. 1(GPD #1) filed a petition on Feb. 4, 2014, protesting the rate increase on the basis of discrimination. The next day, the WV Public Service Commission (PSC) invoked its jurisdiction and made Ronceverte a Respondent. On Feb. 21, Ronceverte filed an application for a certificate of convenience and necessity to upgrade its waste water treatment plant after repeated citings and fines by the DEP on the existing plant.
Last Monday, Administrative Law Judge Keith A. George, appointed by the PSC, oversaw a lengthy hearing in the council chambers of Ronceverte’s City Hall. At issue for the GPD #1 and the City of Lewisburg were two concerns: the sewer rate increases and the waste water system design option chosen by Ronceverte, called “the Cadillac of sewer systems.”
Ronceverte Mayor David Smith stated under oath that the DEP had told the city to build a new plant strict enough to remove the nitrogen phosphorus or receive more fines and other serious litigation.
Under the recommendations proffered by Dunn Engineering when the city began addressing the waste water system, Ronceverte opted for the most expensive of three sewage treatment options, naming the vertical lift reactor as the best alternative. Smith stated the reasons were because tech-wise it is considered to be excellent, the next step down cost only slightly less, it takes up the least amount of space (which was an issue), it will put the city above the 100-year flood plane, and it could be expanded when necessary. It is also the same high-performing plant in use by WSS. The project with that sewage treatment system is estimated to cost in excess of $27 million.
Ronceverte has sought several grant funding sources and also a “bridge loan” of $17,863,039. Abridge loan is a short-term loan pending a larger financial source, in this case, Senate Bill 245. That bill provides grant funding for projects seeking “compliance (with) fecal coliform and phosphorus standards, established for the protection and restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and the Greenbrier River Watershed.” Without the bridge loan, Ronceverte cannot begin construction on the sewer project within its start date of Nov. 2016, or the city will be fined. The city is still awaiting the Senate Bill funds.
If the city must abandon the plan for the sewer plant design, it will be a tremendous cost to the city of Ronceverte, Smith said. He has received no filed objections to the rate increase from any resident of Ronceverte.
Fred Hypes, vice president of Dunn Engineering, stated during the hearing that if this treatment system option is denied, the funding package will no longer be available.” He was firm in stating the existing system cannot be upgraded.
According to Lewisburg Mayor John Manchester, 1,625 Lewisburg residential and commercial customers will be forced to pay about 80 percent more on their sewer bills if the PSC approves Ronceverte’s rate hike request.
“A rate hike of this magnitude,” he said, “hurts a lot of people on fixed income, squeezes disposable income of middle income people, serves as a hindrance to economic development and should only be granted if no other less expensive options exist to accomplishing the objective of improved water quality in the Greenbrier River.”
Manchester also questioned Ronceverte’s contention that the current sewer plant is beyond repair and cannot be operated with modifications. He said the PSC should investigate the infiltration and inflow problems that will not be addressed by Ronceverte’s sewer rate increase request. “We do not believe that the City of Ronceverte adequately evaluated a ‘repair and upgrade’ of the existing sewer plant option at much less cost in both capital and operational costs when compared to the selected new plant design.”
Among others speaking on behalf of the river, Leslee McCarty, coordinator for the Greenbrier River Watershed Assoc. said, “Ronceverte’s antiquated plant has been cited and fined by the DEP many times. State and federal funds are available for a limited time to help Ronceverte, White Sulphur and Alderson plants to control the pollutants causing algae blooms, but this funding can’t cover the whole costs of the necessary improvements. If the river we depend on for drinking water, recreation and part of our identity as a community is compromised by our failure to care for her, what legacy will we be leaving, indeed, what degraded economic circumstances might we be contributing to for future generations? We need to stand up for the river and applaud Ronceverte for trying to solve the problem!”
PSC utility analyst Jonathan McGuire stated that in reviewing Ronceverte’s proposed sewer rate increase and the funding requests, he recommended the bridge loan be denied. If money from the Senate Bill does not materialize, sewer rates for Ronceverte will have to be raised beyond reason to cover the cost and debt of the plant.
Kathy Emery, engineer chief with the WVDEP stated before the judge that her department is backed up with numerous applicants for loans. She said if Ronceverte is not approved, “then that money will go elsewhere.”
The Greenbrier River is on West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Impaired Streams List, required by section 303(d) of the federal Clean Water Act, which sets standards so rivers will be “fishable and swimable.” All 160 miles of the Greenbrier River are considered impaired due to its fecal and algae contents. In a study conducted by the DEP, it was concluded that dissolved phosphorus discharged from sewage treatment facilities along the Greenbrier River is able to combine with nitrates in the river and cause objectionable algae blooms. In addition, they concluded that enhanced phosphorus removal at sewage treatment facilities should substantially reduce the algae bloom occurring in the river.
Judge K.A. George will deliver his verdict on this important issue by July 7, 2014.