Cambria Somerset Authority officials contend that a state Department of Environmental Protection permit requirement essentially reclassifies the regional authority as a private water system, making it subject to certain Clean Water Act regulations.
In doing so, it threatens to flood the authority with expensive
mandates – and potentially, reservoir intake tower modifications – that the CSA and its customers cannot afford, CSA Chairman Jim Greco said.
The issue centers around a subsection of the state-enforced Clean Water Act labeled 316(b). The section addresses guidelines for cooling water intake structures that control dam flows – designed to minimize the impact on fish and other aquatic life that flow through the structures when water is being withdrawn.
“We’ve been classified as a public water system since we’ve been in existence, and we’ve never been required to do this. For 20 years, the DEP has told us that 316(b) doesn’t pertain to us,” Greco said. “All of a sudden, they’re reversing course.”
He said the authority learned of the change when two power plants that are CSA customers, the Cambria Cogeneration Company and Ebensburg Power, sought to renew their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits.
It was a major surprise because another customer, CPV Fairview, was told by state officials just a few years earlier that the CSA’s water system was exempt from the 316(b) requirement, Greco said.
“Those (requirements) can be a very expensive. It was one of the cost factors CPV considered when they were exploring locations to build their plant,” Greco said of the Massachusetts-based company, which is building a multi-million dollar natural gas-fired generating station in Jackson Township.
The project requires the cycling of millions of gallons of CSA water daily through the plant pipeline to keep generating components running properly.
According to DEP press secretary Neil Shader, a 2014 ruling amended a section of the Clean Water Act, and after a discharge permit application was received earlier this year, state officials took a fresh look at the CSA’s system. Officials determined two intake structures – at the Quemahoning and Wilmore reservoirs – are subject to the new regulations, Shader said.
“The majority of CSA’s 16 customers are industrial facilities like power plants that purchase cooling water. CSA does not serve potable water directly to a population for consumption,” Shader said.
DEP officials, who enforce the Clean Water Act on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, have described the regulations as protective in nature because fish can be exposed to stress, chemicals or unsafe water temperatures.
Greco said he recognizes that the CSA serves power plants, one of the industries the regulations were designed to oversee. But he noted that the majority of the authority’s customers are either companies, such as North American Hoganas, Gautier Steel and Johnstown Wire Technologies, or public drinking water providers such as the Somerset County General Authority.
“This could be a real economic hit for those companies. They’re already up against global competition,” he said, noting that any major intake tower projects would likely mean significant rate hikes.
And the first requirement would require a year-long fish “entrainment study” to monitor how fish are being impacted as they pass through the Quemahoning and Wilmore reservoirs, Greco said, adding that that study alone could come with a “six-figure” price tag.
He noted that the authority is still saddled by a $600,000 annual deficit and relies on support for Cambria and Somerset county government loans to fund debt service, despite improved revenues in recent years.
Shader said “numerous” operators of cooling water intake structures similar to the CSA’s are being held to the same 316(b) requirements – and that means they, too, must get into compliance, he added.
But Greco said he doesn’t think the state “understands us.”
“I don’t think the state understands the impact this could have, not just on us, but (on) the counties and the businesses that we serve,” Greco said. “And I don’t think they understand what we do.”
The CSA serves as a regional industrial water system, with its board membership appointed by Cambria and Somerset county commissioners. The authority manages and operates all of the region’s former Manufacturers Water Company reservoir assets and, in addition to selling water, has worked with partners to redevelop the properties for public recreation.
Greco said he’s not aware of another industrial water supplier of its kind in Pennsylvania.
“It’s a complex issue,” he said, “and I think it’s a policy issue. We’re gong to have to go down to Harrisburg and sort this thing out.”
State Sen Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette, said he has already put in a request with DEP’s regional director to set up a meeting to sort out the matter.
“I want to know why there’s this sudden shift after 20 years of doing things differently,” he said, describing the move as concerning. “The CSA’s reservoirs provide a huge economic impact. The water they provide is much needed in some parts of Somerset County where water is poor, not to mention the impact higher fees could have on the businesses they serve.”
The CSA is also reaching out to state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland Township, and Democratic state Reps. Frank Burns and Bryan Barbin for support.
As of now, comments are being received by the DEP until Tuesday on the NPDES permit conditions.
As outlined, Shader said the authority has until June 2021 to submit a state-approved plan outlying the study they’d conduct on the intake towers, a precursor to an aquatic life entrainment report.