Sewage Upgrade Costs To Hit Home

Sewage Upgrade Costs To Hit Home
Article by David Dekok
Appearing in the November 12, 2007 issue of the Patriot News
The impact on midstaters could be staggering. Fifty million for Harrisburg. As much as
$20 million for East Pennsboro Twp. More than $12.2 million for Middletown. And on
and on and on. That’s what it might cost to upgrade sewage treatment plants in those
communities to meet 2010 discharge limits for nitrates and phosphates that are a
consequence of an agreement to clean up Chesapeake Bay that was signed by Gov. Tom
Ridge in 2000. The Rendell administration agreed to specific nutrient and sediment
reduction goals of about 30 percent in April 2003.
Upgrade costs for all 183 sewage treatment plants in the 31 Pennsylvania counties in the
bay watershed are expected to total nearly a billion dollars, said John Brosius of the
Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association. Unlike in Maryland and Virginia,
there’s little state aid to help pay for the upgrades. While there have been apocalyptic
predictions by municipal officials that sewer rates will “double or triple” because of the
high upgrade costs, those municipalities willing to talk actual numbers now say rates
might rise by 20 percent to 67 percent.
NO one will know for sure until the bids come in. East Pennsboro Twp. Manager Robert
Gill predicted that rates will go from $274 per year to $330-$350, an increase of 20
percent to 28 percent. “DEP has a hammer to our heads and we have to comply,” Gill
said. “We have to move forward.”
With the 2010 deadline approaching, municipalities across central Pennsylvania are
becoming anxious about the coming financial hit to their residents. Municipal officials
worry that competition for a limited supply of engineers and construction firms able to do
the work will drive up prices and drag out construction times.
And they pointed out what they see as a major inequity, that central Pennsylvania farms –
sources of most of the nitrates, phosphates, and sediment flowing south to the bay – are
not being asked to spend nearly as much.
Agriculture is responsible for 49 percent of the nitrates entering the bay, according to the
Department of Environmental Protection, while sewage treatment plants contribute 11
percent. Agriculture contributes 63 percent of the phosphates while sewage treatment
plants contribute 18 percent. Agriculture sends 72 percent of the sediment, sewage plants
“From everything I’ve heard, a small percentage of the problem will be rectified by a
billion dollars in spending,” East Pennsboro Twp. Commissioner James H. Hertzler said.
Cathleen Curran Myers, DEP deputy secretary of water management, denied that farms
are getting off easy, even though the approach is mainly voluntary. “Education,
voluntary measures and incentives for participation are the foundation of our strategy for
reducing agricultural runoff,” the department stated in its December 2004 document
outlining the bay strategy.
Much of the Rendell administration’s approach to the agriculture runoff problem appears
rooted in the belief that agriculture is “the second-largest industry in the commonwealth.”
DEP stated that, “We are absolutely committed to preserving and supporting this sector
of our economy.” Yet statistics for 2005 from the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau
of Economic Analysis show that agriculture ranks about 35th among Pennsylvania
industries, contributing 0.5 percent of the state economy. If food processing and the
restaurant and tavern businesses are added in, it rises only to ninth. Even then, it
contributes just 3.8 percent of the state economy.
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Myers said. “We’re still going to treat them based on their
contribution to the problem and their ability to fix it and the programs and tools we have
to work with them. They’re different. We don’t have permits for them. We don’t have
that kind of system.” DEP has required large farms, especially the so-called “factory
farms” that raise large numbers of hogs or chickens indoors, to file manure-management
plans. These farms represent 5,000 to 6,000 of the state’s 45,000 farms, yet account for
nearly half of the manure produced. Some smaller farms might be required to file
manure-management plans, but Myers conceded that the state lacks the enforcement
muscle to effectively monitor compliance. “We’re asking for more money to apply to
enforcement and compliance,” she said. “If we hear of a problem, we trot out, but you’re
not going to get out to 45,000 farms on a regular basis. There’s a lot of honor system
All farms, no matter their size, are encouraged by DEP and local conservation districts to
voluntarily employ farming practices that reduce nutrient and sediment runoff. The
incentive to do so is earning nutrient credits they can sell to municipalities and sewer
authorities. That can make sewage upgrades cheaper, Myers said.
Tom Simpson, a professor at the University of Maryland and chairman of the nutrient
subcommittee of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Water Program, said scientists believe
changes in farming practice can significantly reduce nutrient runoff, but they lack
sufficient documentation on how well farmers follow the practices and the actual results
achieved. If voluntary measures don’t work well enough, Simpson said, government
might have to consider paying farmers to use less fertilizer or switch to crops that release
fewer nutrients. Corn and Soybeans release a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus, he said,
while crops such as hay or prairie grass do not.
Myers is less that sympathetic to the financial plight of the municipalities, suggesting
they created many of their own problems. She said they deferred maintenance on their
sewage treatment plants, didn’t regularly raise their rates and are ignoring cost-saving
options such as buying nutrient credits from farmers. Sewage plant upgrades necessary
to extract the additional nitrates and phosphates will cost about $190 million, Myers said.
The rest of the billion-dollar total comes from work on the plants that is necessary but not
directly related to the 2010 requirements. Maryland has paid for 50 percent of the cost of
the sewage plant upgrades by implementing a “flush tax” that costs residential sewage
customers $30 a year. Myers snorted at the idea of implementing a similar tax in
Pennsylvania. “Have you seen a tax get passed in this state in the last five years?” she
asked. “We would be happy to have investment, but that would have to be a legislative