The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

September 1, 2013

MAP | Sewer projects are making a stink: Homeowners are angered and confused over the work

Randy Griffith

— Homeowners are raising a stink over the cost of numerous sewer projects across the region, with more than 100 signing a petition urging Johnstown City Council to reconsider mandated work.

Charlene Stanton of Sell Street started the petition after getting an estimate of $15,000 to install the required new sewer line to eliminate stormwater infiltration.

“Where do the people get this money?” Stanton asked. “They are just going to walk away from their property. It will create more blight.”

The work is required as the city’s latest phase of sewer upgrades reached her Roxbury neighborhood as part of state-ordered work to address overloads and blowouts in the sprawling 20-municipality Johnstown Regional Sewage system feeding the Dornick Point treatment plant.

Stormwater entering the sanitary sewer system through old underground terracotta lines, downspouts, combined sanitary/storm sewers and other sources regularly creates sewage flows that exceed the Dornick Point plant’s capacity, putting it in violation. There are also 50 locations where excess sewage is dumped into area waterways during heavy runoff.

A state order has established a timeline for the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority to get the stormwater out of the system and eliminate overflows or face crippling fines.

A looming Jan. 1 reporting date has authority leaders working to address remaining issues across the system, authority acting director Francis D’Ettorre said.

In addition to the city, replacement projects have been completed in Dale and East Conemaugh boroughs and are ongoing in Ferndale and Brownstown. Highland Sewer and Water Authority has been working throughout its collection system, and Pegasus Sewer Authority and several others have made progress.

Westmont, Southmont and Lorain boroughs and Upper Yoder and Lower Yoder townships are among those still working on a response.

Extreme measures?

But is the city going too far, Stanton asks, with support from retired professional engineer Leonard J. Facciani of Ferndale. Both point out that it is the redevelopment authority, not the city, which is under orders to fix the problem. They also note that the state order does not require complete replacement of home sewer connections, with pressure testing to identify and eliminate openings for stormwater.

Start with the obvious, Facciani said.

“Work on getting the (storm) sewers and downspouts out of the system, and then see where you are at,” Facciani said. “I feel certain that’s 90 percent of the problem.”

Facciani believes the plant has the  capacity to treat any extra inflow and infiltration from residential service connections. He plans to present his arguments Sept. 9 to Ferndale Borough Council.

Stanton wonders why the city is requiring pressure testing, since the costly remedy is not suggested in the redevelopment authority’s order from the Department of Environmental Protection. The order does suggest smoke and dye testing to locate leaks.

Proof is in results, engineer says

It all sounds good, but the less-costly alternatives do not work, said engineer Steve Sewalk of the EADS Group in Johnstown. EADS serves as the engineer for the city, the redevelopment authority and several other municipal sewage agencies.

Sewalk shows readouts from 160 meters installed to measure flow rates from various communities as sewage enters the Johnstown Regional Sewage main lines, also called interceptors.

All of the communities with complete reconstruction and residential pressure testing have maintained acceptable flow rates during periods of heavy rain, he points out. None of the systems with less complete projects have come into compliance.

A graph showing outflow from East Conemaugh Borough is the most dramatic, with an abrupt and permanent drop from the day the new sewer system was switched over.

“They have proven you can fix the problem,” Sewalk said. “We deal in proof, not theory.”

‘It’s a learning curve’

It isn’t a new issue, said Highland Manager Ed Engelhart. The Richland Township-based authority has been working to reduce inflow and infiltration for more than a decade. Highland customers have been required to have pressure testing when any property is sold. Highland crews go out and check neighborhoods during virtually every heavy rainfall.

The first issues Highland looked at included downspouts, basement drains and storm sewer connections, Englehart said. Other projects have attacked the problem with a variety of strategies, from smoke and dye testing up to replacing everything except the homeowners’ connecting pipes. Now Highland is going through its neighborhoods, with its own crews installing new sewers with the same criteria and homeowners’ requirements being used in the city and other successful systems.

“It’s a learning curve,” Englehart said. “There is nothing you can do to fix the problem unless you basically go in and put in a whole new system.”

Brownstown Borough engineer Dan Carbaugh of Hollidaysburg-based Keller Engineering agrees. He points to another neighboring community’s attempt to put in a new system and have homeowners sign documents saying their connections are sealed.

“Their average daily flow was something like 250,000 gallons,” Carbaugh said. “The first rainfall, it went up to 4 million gallons.”

Part of the problem, Carbaugh said, is that many older homes have terracotta pipes, made from clay, connecting to the sewers. Not only are the old pipes breaking and leaking, sometimes they were deliberately installed with gaps to allow groundwater to enter.

Even removing the direct connection from a downspout doesn’t keep that water out of the sewer in those homes, he explained.

The runoff seeks the easiest path and runs down the foundation wall into the gaps in the lateral pipe.

Daisytown Borough tried the smoke and dye approach, following up with house-to-house inspections to remove sump pumps and hidden downspouts, Sewalk said.

“We did all that and there are still problems,” Sewalk said. “I think Daisytown is a microcosm of the whole system.”

Randy Griffith covers Johnstown Redevelopment Authority for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at