WEIGH SCALES - A proposed overhaul of the Shamokin-Coal Township Joint Sewer Authority's ongoing sewer separation project could reduce project costs by more than $45 million, according to the authority engineer.

The savings come with a caveat: The costs of operation and maintenance of the alternative satellite treatment system are considerable.

The authority is under federal mandate to reduce pollutants from reaching the Chesapeake Bay by way of the Susquehanna River. It's plan is to replace all existing combined sewer overflow lines to prevent storm water from overtaxing the aging system and spilling into area creeks, as originally designed.

Projected separation costs exceed $161 million, a figure that spiked $25 million on the prospect of curb-to-curb paving requirements that are pending in Coal Township and up for initial discussion in Shamokin.

Scott Keefer, authority engineer of Great Valley Consultants, said current financing arrangements with PennVEST and U.S. Department of Agriculture wouldn't permit curb-to-curb paving.

"We understand why municipalities would want to do this, however, the rules under your financing won't allow that," he said during Wednesday's authority meeting.

As a result, the authority is considering amending its long-term control plan, ditching the installation of all new sewer lines for a satellite treatment system along Shamokin Creek and its tributaries.

Township commissioners are expected to vote today on an ordinance that would require utility companies and others digging up a roadway and disturbing more than 10 percent of one township block to resurface the entire section of roadway between intersections. Current ordinance mandates roadway resurfacing when 33 percent of a township block is disturbed.

The city hasn't made any moves on such an ordinance and no discussions have been had at any recent city council meetings. However, Councilman Michael Snyder, who oversees public works, presented the township's proposed ordinance to fellow council members for review.

Keefer suggested that if such paving requirements were to become reality, the authority could ask a municipality for a waiver to keep its project costs as low as possible.

The alternative

A satellite system would treat combined sewer overflow at treatment plants built creekside, pumping the overflow into the plants and treating it with approved chemicals before discharging it into the waterway. The chemicals would be recycled for reuse.

The installation of such a system with four plants is estimated at $115.6 million, far less than the sewer line replacement plan, but annual operation and maintenance is projected at $400,000.

Keefer said the system could be installed in quarterly increments, meeting the federal government's non-negotiable project deadline of 2042.

Authority members did not act on the proposal at the advice of Keefer. He suggested waiting to hear from federal and state legislators on potential grant funding the authority is pursuing to offset project costs.

The authority board voted to apply for a $5 million PennWorks grant that would make comparatively minor upgrades to the current system towards meeting minimum compliance with Environmental Protection Agency.

Costly mandate

Tens of millions of dollars have already been financed for the sewer separation project for a completed sewer line project in Springfield and an ongoing project at the existing treatment plant along Route 61. The work has caused customer bills to increase in stages from $15 a quarter in 2006 to the current rate of $49.50 a month.

Authority members have struggled to finance the project and have been critical of both the state and federal government for enforcing a mandate without providing money to ease the local burden.

Their concerns have repeatedly been expressed to governing bodies but, until a recent meeting with state Department of Environmental Protection, hadn't seemed to been met with much empathy.

"I think they got the message," Keefer said, "that there's no more local money to put on the table. They've noticeably backed away from harsher rhetoric" regarding compliance.