Options scarce to fund mandated sewer project
WEIGH SCALES - Members of the Shamokin-Coal Township Joint Sewer Authority are struggling to find funding to continue the federally mandated sewer separation project.
The authority is already on the hook for approximately $52 million in principal on project loans.
The next phase, which would move west from Sixth Street in Shamokin into the Fairview and Ferndale sections of Coal Township, is estimated at more than $22 million.
"This cannot be done without grant money, 100-percent grant money," Scott Keefer, project engineer with Great Valley Consultants, said during Wednesday's authority meeting.
Meetings have been held with state and federal officeholders in the hopes of identifying grant funding. The entirety of the funding needed for the next phase is unavailable, that much is clear, Keefer said.
That begged the question of compliance and if it would be cheaper to pay in perpetuity an annual fine of $36,500 for non-compliance rather than continue the project.
"We have raised the question if we can just pay that forever," he said.
An answer hasn't yet come.
Hypothetically speaking, the authority could make 602 annual payments of $36,500 before it would reach the estimated project cost for the next phase. It's not clear if that fine would be compounded by continued non-compliance.
The federal government issued an unfunded mandate that municipalities with combined sewer overflow systems, such as in Shamokin and Coal Township, be eliminated to reduce pollutants from reaching Susquehanna River and eventually Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
That's done by overhauling a sewer system that was once designed to allow overflows from sewer lines into bodies of water in the event of heavy rain. Such overflows are now outlawed, and storm water must be separated from sewage by installing all new sewer lines.
When it was announced in 2006, project costs were estimated to exceed $125 million, and work was expected to last more than 35 years. As a result, customer bills soared in stages from $15 a quarter in 2006 to the current rate of $49.50 a month.
The Springfield section of Coal Township was the first to undergo construction for the combined sewer overflow project, and that phase has since been completed.
Ongoing construction of a new wastewater treatment plant is another phase, and is expected to last into spring 2015. Original estimates had the project at $37.6 million, with authority members keeping their fingers crossed that change orders for unanticipated expenses be kept low.
More than $530,000 in change orders have been approved so far, largely in part to the discovery and eventual remediation of contaminated soil found after shovels began to dig at the project site.
The soil issue would have increased costs to construct a new garage, and authority members decided to ditch that part of the project, opting instead to make structural repairs to the existing garage.
Authority members are sensitive to another rate hike to further fund the project and have expressed hard feelings that no grant money has been made available to ease the burden locally.
However, they have said the offices of state Rep. Kurt Masser and state Sen. John Gordner have worked hard on their behalf, and they're hoping for more of the same from U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey.
"I hope the offices of Lou Barletta and Pat Toomey can see our plight and help us out," said Michael Carpenter, authority board member.
Representatives of state Department of Environmental Protection will meet with authority officials next month about potentially extending the deadline by which the project must be completed.