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Waste treatment standards might drive up sewer bills in W.Va.

August 22, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Substantially higher sewer bills might be on the horizon for many Eastern Panhandle residents because of mandated waste treatment standards aimed at cleaning up Chesapeake Bay.

With no guarantee of federal or state money for facility upgrades in sight, at least two customer-supported sewage treatment systems in Berkeley and Jefferson counties are eyeing potentially large sewage rate increases.

The tougher pollution standards, which include reduction of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients released into the bay's watershed, were set into motion by former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise in June 2002.

By signing the Chesapeake Bay Program Water Quality Initiative Memorandum of Understanding, Wise committed to pollution reduction efforts in the eight West Virginia counties that are in the bay's watershed. Now, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is expected to begin enforcing the new rules as permits for wastewater treatment operations are renewed.

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The Charles Town (W.Va.) Utility Board's permit is set to be renewed in 2011, when a $17.5 million project upgrade is expected to be completed, utility board Manager Jane Arnett said.

The upgrade will cost a family of four nearly $13 more per month, which amounts to about a 40 percent rate increase, according to preliminary estimates Arnett released last week.

The Charles Town Utility Board serves more than 10,000 residents in the Charles Town and Ranson, W.Va., areas, Arnett said.

The approximately 40 percent increase would not be passed on to customers until the summer of 2011, when the sewage treatment upgrades are in place, Arnett said. Charles Town Council this month approved increasing the Utility Board's capacity improvement fee, which is charged for new sewer service connections from $1,127 to $5,500, Arnett said. That increase still must be approved by the West VIrginia Public Service Commission.

Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District (BCPSSD) customers could be burdened with an even larger percentage of a rate increase to pay for an estimated $20 million to 25 million in improvements, district general manager Curtis Keller said.

BCPSSD has about 19,000 customers, and Keller estimated about 50,000 people are served by the district.

"We're probably looking at a 50 percent increase, and maybe more than that," Keller said.

In Morgan County, the sewer bill for the average residential customer of the Warm Springs Public Service Sewer District was increased about $10 per month to pay for an $11 million project completed last spring, district manager Rodney Hovermale said.

"We've already spent the big money," Hovermale said.

But the district, which serves about 1,500 customers, since has discovered the rate increase wasn't enough to pay for added electric, chemical and other operational expenses, and has asked the West Virginia Public Service Commission for an additional $5-per-month increase, Hovermale said.

The cost of overhauling sewage treatment operations in the City of Martinsburg still is being assessed, but Utilities Director Steve Knipe said he expects the project will cost more than the $15 million estimate the city received a few years ago.

The Martinsburg City Council recently authorized a study be done to help determine what upgrades need to be done in the next few years when the city's permit is renewed and how much it will cost to revamp the city's treatment facilities, Knipe said.

Without any financial assistance from the state or federal government, Knipe said rate increases for customers would not be pretty. The city's sewage treatment system now provides service to about 20,000 people, Knipe said.

Keller said sewer districts in the region have not been opposed to doing their part to clean up Chesapeake Bay, but have been fighting an uphill battle to get the state to recognize the financial burden.

"If we sit on our hands, the ratepayers will pay all of this," said State Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson/Berkeley.

Snyder estimated there are between $250 million and $300 million in sewage treatment projects that will have to be done to comply with the tougher water quality standards being applied to eastern West Virginia.

"It's a massive regional challenge that no single (sewer district) should do on their own," Snyder said of ongoing efforts to obtain financial support from state and federal sources for the upgrades.

Legislation that established the state's Chesapeake Bay Restoration Initiative directs the DEP to develop funding scenarios, including state and federal sources, to help offset the financial burden and present options to legislators next year, Snyder said.

The DEP also is expected to develop a nutrient trading and offset program, Snyder said.

Snyder said he anticipates a "flush tax" similar to what Maryland put into effect in January 2005 to reduce nutrient pollution in the bay will be one of the funding options explored.

The flush tax is a $2.50 monthly fee applied to sewer bills, and septic system owners pay $30 annually. The money is redistributed by the state for wastewater treatment upgrades and projects to reduce nutrient runoff from farmland.

"We're in catch-up mode, there's no question about it," Snyder said.

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