If elected officials and a handful of visitors were hoping to hear less costly alternatives to pressure testing and related repairs now mandated for all city properties, they were disappointed at Tuesday’s Johnstown City Council sewer workshop.
The 90-minute discussion featured a panel of engineers and representatives from neighboring municipalities and sewer authorities describing their attempts to reduce stormwater inflow to sanitary sewers.
Department of Environmental Protection officials outlined what is required from the city and the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority and penalties for missed deadlines.
“This workshop was scheduled to review the city’s responsibility to reduce infiltration and clear-water inflow into the sewage system,” Mayor Frank Janakovic said to open the workshop.
Representatives from Pegasus Sewer Authority, Jackson-East Taylor Sewer Authority, Dale Borough and Daisytown Borough told council they all tried other solutions but ended up doing pressure testing.
“Once we got into the pressure testing, it solved the problem,” said engineer Dan Carbaugh of Keller Engineering. He worked on sewer projects for Brownstown and Conemaugh boroughs, among others.
Some residents opposed to pressure testing point to language in a DEP order that allows smoke and dye testing to identify leaks in pipes.
But several in attendance said they tried smoke and dye and would not recommend it.
“Smoke and dye, we are convinced, was a waste of money,” Pegasus representative Kurt Freidhoff said.
The problem, Freidhoff said, is that downspouts, basement drains and sump pumps are not the biggest contributors. Water is getting into sewer systems from the soil surrounding the foundation. Tracking flow rates after a rainfall showed that houses that did the repairs and passed pressure tests were virtually the only ones not adding to the problem.
“It proved to us this stuff is coming from underneath these homes,” Freidhoff said.
Although the city and the authority have until 2022 to eliminate sewage overflows, work must continue to advance so decisions can be made for the final phases, city engineer Steve Sewalk of the EADS Group said. The redevelopment authority has to present its solution plan by 2017 and be under construction by 2018 to avoid crushing fines.
In order to design, the authority must know how much additional flow to expect during rain events, Sewalk said. Then it has to design a way to treat the additional flow.
If nothing more is done, it would require a 400 percent increase in capacity at the Dornick Point treatment plant, costing about $600 million, said Frank D’Ettorre, acting director of the authority.
Paying for that plant would push sewer bills up to about $200 a month systemwide.
But that’s not fair to customers in the Pegasus and Brownstown, East Conemaugh and Dale borough systems, who already paid thousands for new laterals and pressure testing, said Ed Pollock, a supervisor with DEP.
“Some people would be paying $300 a month for water and sewer bills, versus a one-time payment of $2,000,” Pollock said referring to the average cost for pressure testing and repairs.
“I think, ethically and financially, you are making the best decision for your city (with pressure testing),” Pollock said.
Noncompliance is not an option, Pollock warned. Both the city and the redevelopment authority approved timetables for the repairs. Failing to meet the timetables will bring fines. Failure to pay the fines will bring in the federal government.
City Manager Kristen Denne said council should continue to address the sewage overflow problems, not just to avoid crippling fines that could top $15,000 a month, but because it’s the right thing to do.
She referred to Sewalk’s presentation on the history of Johnstown’s sewer system. Sewalk showed the city was first ordered in 1915 to stop dumping raw sewage into streams.
“This has been put off since 1915,” Denne said. “We are violating the law. How long can we kick the can down the road?”
Pollock also pointed to the moral obligation.
Pressure testing opponents Randy Maurer and Charlene Stanton said council should find ways to help homeowners pay for the repairs required.
Janakovic said the city is looking into low-interest loans and other help for residents.
“We are looking at all options,” Janakovic said. “Tonight’s meeting brought some clarity. We’ll see what else we can do for the citizens.”
Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.