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Thursday, May 30, 2002

Community's growth troubles start in its sewers
Associated Press Writer

DUBOIS, Pa. (AP) - Businessman Dennis Raybuck wanted to locate his newest dairy-products factory in the DuBois area where he lives because the former coal and logging center in northwestern Pennsylvania needs the 350 manufacturing jobs the plant would bring.

But those jobs are on hold because the plant cannot be built. DuBois has no building permits to give because of a ban on new sewer hook-ups in the community by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"It has completely stopped growth around here," said Raybuck, who heads a family-owned company called International Custom Products. "In fact, there's not going to be any housing construction or anything else around here, the way it looks."

The ban - imposed last year because of an antiquated sewage-treatment system that results in overflows of sewage-tainted water into a local creek when heavy rain hits - has stopped new construction in both DuBois and neighboring Sandy Township, which have a combined population of about 19,700 people and struggle with underemployment.

The DEP is taking a tough line on communities like DuBois, Berwick near Wilkes-Barre and the borough of Ringtown near Pottsville that have chronic problems with outmoded sewage-treatment facilities, stopping or limiting new construction in more than a dozen of them. Many of them are small communities in the western part of the state with older systems that overload during heavy rainfalls.

The DEP's ban has left a "frustrated" feeling in the communities of DuBois and Sandy Township, said Nancy Micks, executive director of the DuBois Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's very difficult to have a state agency with the kind of power to tell you, 'No more,' " Micks said.

The DEP for its part says it is doing nothing that it hasn't been doing for years and it is not insensitive to the development needs of communities, which is why it attempts to work long and hard with communities in preliminary stages before instituting a ban. In many cases, towns see new construction limited but not banned outright.

"The goal of the department is not to stop development. The goal of the department is to protect the environment and human health," said Christine Martin, deputy secretary for water management with the DEP.

The ban in the DuBois and Sandy Township will stay in effect until the city comes up with a plan for correcting the problem that the DEP approves. City officials are hoping to get the DEP to allow a limited number of hook-ups to the sewer system while the plan is being implemented.

"It's going to be in effect in one form or another until the problem is corrected and they're no longer discharging raw sewage," said Gary Metzger, a regional section chief with the DEP's Williamsport regional office.

The DEP cited infiltration from illegal or faulty connections to the sewage system that caused the city's 42-year-old treatment plant to exceed its permitted capacity. The trouble includes downspouts that empty rainfall into the sewer mains, resulting in overflows during rainy periods at the plant that force the discharge of untreated sewage into Sandy Lick Creek.

To fix the problem, sewer lines would have to be repaired and the cost borne by ratepayers, said John "Herm" Suplizio, mayor of DuBois. The price can be expected to be "in the millions," Suplizio said.

Communities can get low-interest loans to pay for the repair costs through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, known as PENNVEST, an agency founded in 1988 to help communities with loans for water and sewer projects, or through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. DuBois has had preliminary meetings with PENNVEST over its potential projects, said Paul Natale, a project specialist with the authority.

Other towns, too, are struggling with sewage systems that let too much rainwater overflow into treatment plants. In southwestern Pennsylvania, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is already requiring the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority and more than 50 of the municipalities it serves to address problems found there.

That project alone is expected to cost some $3 billion to the authority and municipalities. It is still unknown how much the repairs, which would be paid for over a 20-year period, will affect sewer rates, said Nancy Baryluk, an authority spokeswoman.

The problem is prevalent "because we have this combined sewer overflow problem which is contributing to pollution in the stream. In addition, we have not invested in the further development of our sewer system," said Jared L. Cohon, president of Carnegie-Mellon University and a specialist in sewer infrastructure issues.

Political and environmental leaders in the southwestern part of the state say counties are willing to cooperate to address the region's failing sewage and septic systems. Cooperating as a region could reduce the $10 billion cost to fix the system by 20 percent to 30 percent, officials have said.

"We have to invest in both expanding the capacity of the system and fixing the pipes in the system that are broken," Cohon said.

In St. Marys, about 110 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, growth in the city of 14,500 is limited to 40 tap-ins to sewer lines a year because of DEP restrictions stemming from a plant that overloads during heavy rainfall, said Ken Gabler, city manager. The city is undertaking a $12 million expansion of its sewage-treatment plant in response.

Back in DuBois, Raybuck said he could go elsewhere if it looks like the DEP ban will not be lifted anytime soon. He said he has no problem with the DEP getting tough on sewerage problems, although he wishes the agency's response wasn't quite so drastic for his community.

"I think they're just toughening up on certain places now and this happens to be one of them," said Raybuck. "Do I think they could have been a little more lenient in how they went about it? Perhaps. Are they asking for too much in the end? No. The problem needs to be solved and I think they're right in asking for it to be solved."


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