The controversial pressure test mandate associated with Johnstown’s ongoing sewer project might soon be at least temporarily suspended.
On Wednesday, all seven council members – Mayor Frank Janakovic, William Gentile, Marie Mock, Pete Vizza, David Vitovich, Nunzio Johncola and Frederick Mickel – voted in favor of repealing the requirement for property owners. It was the first read of the ordinance, identified as Bill 13 of 2014. A majority of council members would need to vote in favor at a final read, which will likely take place at July’s meeting, for it to take effect.
“The first reading means that it’s out there for public inspection before it’s voted on a second time,” said Dave Andrews, Johnstown’s solicitor. “Under the city charter, we have two readings of an ordinance. This was the first reading tonight, and it passed. We proceed to the second reading.”
In 2010, Johnstown entered into a consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection to eliminate all sanitary sewer overflows from the city’s system. The order required all properties to pass smoke and/or dye tests, which many pipes could do. However, in 2012, council decided to require pressure testing, which is more accurate and expensive than smoke or dye.
By doing so while also replacing all of Johnstown’s main lines, council felt, was the only way to ensure the city could eliminate all overflows before a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline.
Most older systems will not pass a pressure test without first having repair work done. Prices can vary from hundreds of dollars to in excess of $10,000, depending on the amount of excavation, line installation and remodeling needed.
Even if the pressure test is eliminated it could return.
Council voted 7-0 in support of Bill 14 of 2014 on Wednesday that would give it the right to reinstate the pressure test, as of July 1, 2016, if the city remains out of compliance with the DEP order.
“Basically what that’s saying is you have to wait two years before you can act on an ordinance that’s been repealed, so then if we’re still out of compliance with the DEP mandates, then we reserve the right to go back to pressure testing,” said Andrews. “It doesn’t mean it will be automatic, but we’re reserving the right to go back to pressure testing.”
An organized effort, led mostly by Roxbury resident Charlene Stanton and former City Councilman Jack Williams, was launched against the pressure test mandate.
Williams’ group, the 2014-2015 Petitioners Committee-Repeal Ordinance No. 5103, collected enough petition signatures to present the ordinance to council. Had council rejected it, then the issue would have likely been included as a referendum on the 2015 primary ballot.
“I’m pleased that we got this far,” said Williams. “I’ll hold my breath until we make sure that it goes through at the next meeting.” He added, “It’s going to assist residents who are faced with this problem right now, and, at the same time, give the city the opportunity to look a little more in depth to what they’re doing.”
If the overflows are not eliminated on time, the city could face fines that, in a worst-case scenario, could cost several million dollars per year.
“I have a concern with the time issues,” said Steve Sewalk, the city’s engineer from The EADS Group. “That’s my biggest concern of where we’re going with the time issues to get everything done for the consent order.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.