The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


November 17, 2013

Sewer situation: Good intentions run amuck

JOHNSTOWN — Some strange things have happened on the way to a regional sewerage system in Johnstown.

Yes, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has, necessarily, told the city of Johnstown and the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority that they have to stop dumping raw sewage into the Conemaugh River.

One of the main reasons that sometimes happens is because the sewage treatment plant has been overwhelmed with stormwater during heavy rains and snow melts. The DEP said to the city and the 19 communities that participate in the Johnstown Regional Sewerage System that a stormwater management plan was needed.

As a part of that plan, the DEP recommended that properties be inspected when sold or transferred to eliminate illegal stormwater connections such as roof drains, sump pumps and foundation drains. DEP also recommended the use of smoke and dye testing to locate these types of illegal stormwater connections to the sanitary system.

DEP recognized that the main stormwater problems were with storm sewer cross-connections to sanitary sewers, springs and streams that entered the system. Most importantly, parts of the

Johnstown sewerage system were inadequate, broken and needed to be replaced.

Sewer policies affecting homeowners are not made in Harrisburg, Washington or anywhere other than here.

The DEP does not require that homeowner sewer laterals be airtight, does not require pressure-testing, does not require that homeowners be forced into open-ended, private contracts with no known unit costs or limits, and does not require the forced search of private homes for possible sewer violations. (The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees that citizens be secure in their homes.)

The DEP certainly does not require that basement drains be replaced and neither does the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA says that the goal of any stormwater management program is to reduce pollutant discharges to the maximum extent practical, prohibit illicit discharges and protect water quality.

No one knows how much water, if any, might enter the joints of a terra cotta clay sewer pipe under the concrete basement slab of a house and no one has attempted to compare the public benefit versus the private cost of tearing

up basement floors, walls

and other improvements in order to install new airtight pipes – but everyone knows that sewage needs water in order to flow in a gravity system.

The public benefit of a policy that requires basement sewer replacement because it won’t pass a pressure test may range from none to slight whereas the private cost to hard-pressed homeowners with little or no disposable income is disastrous.

The local officials and their advisers who have made these policies are our friends and neighbors serving on local municipal and authority boards. All are well-intentioned public-spirited citizens who believe these policies are required and necessary. Many believe such actions are required by the DEP or the EPA. Some believe policies that seem harsh now will protect homeowners from future problems and costs. Some sewer authorities have sent letters to homeowners saying that they, “have no choice” but to require homeowners to pressure test private sewer laterals – including inside the house – and forcing homeowners into private contracts – when in fact they had many choices.

Johnstown city officials have inherited monumental sewerage problems that have accumulated for many years and they are doing their best to rebuild the system and to ease homeowner stress. They are to be commended. All participating local governments should follow the example of Johns-town by allocating community development block grant monies and other funds such as Act 13 impact fee monies to redress homeowner pressure-testing costs.

Edward Smith of Jackson Township is a retired city and county manager. He is chairman of the Pennsylvania Homeowners Association.

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