DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell gives an interview at The Tribune-Democrat offices on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019.

For decades, as the region’s sewer systems aged and decayed, more and more raw sewage flowed into local waterways, causing pollution and killing off life in streams and rivers.

The contamination obviously violated federal law.

So, plans were put into place – through consent agreements between local municipalities connected to Johnstown Redevelopment Authority’s Dornick Point Sewage Treatment Plant and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection – to reduce the flows.

That is the large-scale environmental and regulatory aspect of the ongoing sewer project that started in the mid-2010s and is expected to continue until the early-2020s.

But, for many property owners, the reality hits close to home … literally.

All 20 municipalities were allowed to design their own specific plans to reduce rates to 625 gallons per day per equivalent dwelling unit or less by their respective deadlines.

Requiring structures to pass air pressure tests has become the standard. However, most private systems, especially those using terra cotta pipes, cannot pass the stringent test without having some construction work done. That often results in yards and basements being dug up to install new lines, costing thousands of dollars.

And therein is the conflict – raw sewage in the water vs. private property torn up by unwanted costly construction.

“Frankly, the easiest thing to talk about is it at the macro level,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Sec. Patrick McDonnell said during a meeting Thursday at The Tribune-Democrat. “The hardest thing to talk about is when that trench is going through your front or back yard and you’re digging into the basement. It’s an impact. There’s absolutely no denying that.”

Other tests exist, including smoke and dye, but DEP Southwest Regional Director Ronald Schwartz said pressure testing is the “most efficient,” but admitted it is also the “most disruptive.”

“They proposed to us pressure testing and we concurred,” Schwartz said. “They felt that was the most thorough, the most economical. And, again, we have found that in sister systems, neighboring systems that have taken a similar approach and found it to be more effective in solving the problem.”

The overall goal is to upgrade the systems, reduce the flows and eliminate the pollution in order to improve the waterways, which, increasingly, are being used for recreation, such as kayaking on the Stonycreek River.

“We cannot have raw sewage discharging into waterways,” said Lauren Fraley, environmental community relations specialist for the DEP’s Southwest Regional Office. “You can’t have a vibrant recreational economy, you can’t have vibrant communities where you have sewage in the water.”

Fraley added: “If your road hadn’t been updated in 80 to 100 years, there would be outrage. People would be losing their minds over it. But they don’t notice that underneath their ground there are pipes that haven’t been updated in that long. If they saw raw sewage discharge into some of these streams – and it was bright blue or purple or something – people would see it, and notice and it would be different. But you can kind of be unaware that this is happening.” 

‘Keep them on schedule’ 

Earlier this summer, the 17 systems systems connected to JRA lines submitted information to provide to the DEP as part of a regular update.

Almost 57% of the 25,802 structures had been pressure tested, including just shy of 38% of properties in Johnstown. Six systems – Brownstown, Daisytown, Dale, East Conemaugh, Jackson/East Taylor and Pegasus – have reached at least 97%. Others lag behind, such as West Taylor and Southmont with 1.26% and 0.61%, respectively.

“The reason why we’re getting the six-month reports is to make sure we have an understanding of where they all are,” McDonnell said.

Systems that do not come into compliance by their deadlines – for instance Dec. 31, 2022, for both JRA and Johnstown – face the possibility of large fines. But extensions could be possible if work is close to completion and a good-faith effort has been made, Schwartz said.

“Ultimately the objective is to get them back on schedule under what the agreement requires,” Schwartz said. “Most agreements have stipulated penalty requirements. But our preference is to avoid that and try to work with them to keep them on schedule, get them back on schedule – because the improvements we see in the water quality are so impressive that we want to make sure that they’re all achieving that. It’s not a perfect world. We understand not everyone can meet certain deadlines, but we’ll do what we can to help everybody achieve those.” 

CPV Fairview permitting 

When completed, the $700 million CPV Fairview Energy Center power plant in Jackson Township will operate two natural gas-powered turbines and a third powered by the steam produced from water used to cool the gas turbines.

McDonnell said there have been “good (permit) applications and it’s been communication back and forth to make sure they’re doing everything they need to be doing.”

“They’re doing all their shakedown testing,” Schwartz said. “There are certainly parts of that we’re involved with – stack emission testing protocols, things like that – that we’ll be looking at. But all the permitting work is done. Then, of course, our routine inspections will start up after the facility is fully operational to inspect that they’re in compliance with their permits.” 

Environmental concerns 

Looking toward emerging issues of concern in the commonwealth, McDonnell pointed to lead, perfluorinated compounds and climate change.

“That’s a great example of a place where it isn’t one thing, it’s a million things that we need to be thinking about and doing – some of it energy, some of it transportation,” McDonnell said when discussing climate change.

“It’s a lot of things that I always say I get optimistic about because I do think the technology and the economics around a lot of the technologies is getting to that point where we’re about to make some turns around the corner on both the transportation side and the power side for really seeing some improvements there.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.