For several years, Johnstown City Council has been providing residents information about the municipality’s ongoing sewer improvement work.
Numerous public meetings have been held. Officials and representatives from the city’s engineering firm, The EADS Group, have responded to countless phone calls and emails. On-site inspectors have offered assistance.
Still, though, some questions and confusion have lingered.
Early last week, council discussed plans to keep customers up to date about the project.
“We have inspectors out there every day, two to four, on every site, to do PR, to talk to people,” said City Manager Kristen Denne. “They go up and knock on their doors, ask them if they have any questions. We have two inspectors that are doing nothing but handling the inspections and working with the contractors to make this easy on people. We have full-time staff at EADS, we have full-time staff in the city that will answer anybody’s questions who calls.”
Councilman William Gentile Jr. added, “They’re doing a good job.”
The project formally got underway when the city entered into a consent agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection on July 14, 2010, that required Johnstown to get rid of sanitary sewer overflow within its system or face stiff fines.
“We are up against one major thing right now, the DEP,” said Denne. “If we do not get those flows under control, we are going to get fined.”
DEP did not lay out what steps should be taken to fix the problems. The agency simply ordered the city to eliminate the SSO discharge.
Council examined three main options.
The board considered installing holding tanks in neighborhoods, which would have minimally cost $150 million, according to EADS engineer Steve Sewalk. Building an entirely new treatment plant could have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Neither plan would have addressed underground leaks in worn-out, decades-old pipes.
“If we don’t do this right now in the right way, in 10 years they’ll be knocking on our doorsteps again and saying, ‘Now, you need to redo this,’ ” said Deputy Mayor Frank Janakovic.
Council ultimately chose the option of replacing main lines throughout the city. The work is being done in phases, going from neighborhood to neighborhood. All total, the process is expected to cost a little more than $100 million.
“Engineering-wise, what we’re doing is the best way,” said Councilman Joseph Taranto. “The new system makes the most sense. Over the long run, it definitely is more cost-efficient.”
The approach requires property owners to get their lines checked and then tap into the system, which has become the most contentious part of the plan. Prices for the work vary, depending on the amount of excavation, line installation, basement construction, etc. needed. Sewalk said the average cost per customer looks to be between $2,500 and $3,000. Estimates as high as $15,000 have been reported. A simple lateral connection with no work needed beyond inside the foundation wall could run as low as $800.
“This is the least expensive for the consumer,” said Councilwoman Marie Mock. “If we build these tanks, a new sewer plant, somebody’s sewer bill could be $200-some a month until they sell their property. If you own the property for 15 years, you are paying an unbelievable amount of money where it could have cost you a couple thousand dollars to put a line in, boom, done.”
The consent agreement called for using only smoke and/or dye testing when searching for leaks.
By ordinance, Johnstown required the more-expensive pressure testing instead.
“I believe this council ought to re-evaluate the pressure test being conducted for the sewage upgrade, as best we can,” said Councilman Pete Vizza.
Eliminating pressure tests would necessitate a re-examination of the entire project after the city and some residents have already spent money installing their respective main lines and laterals.
“If we’re saying repeal the pressure test, I have no issue with that. But you need to tell me that now, because then we’re throwing good money after bad money, and I need to know what way this ship is going,” Denne said in response to the suggestion.
Pressure testing, according to Sewalk, can detect all cracks where infiltration might occur; dye and smoke cannot. “If it passes a pressure test, you know 100 percent it won’t leak,” Sewalk said.
Members of council also discussed ways to possibly help residents offset the construction and tap-in costs. Taranto suggested approaching the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, an organization that collaborates efforts between donors, wealth advisers and nonprofits to help improve the region.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.