Leechburg lands $11M package for sewer separation project

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

A $6.7 million state grant Leechburg received on Tuesday to separate its sewer lines will soften any increase in sewage fees residents would pay to complete the project.

The Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PennVEST, approved nearly $11 million in state funding for Leechburg to complete the long-awaited last phase of its sewer separation project.

The borough will receive about $6.7 million up front in the form of a grant. It will borrow the remaining $4.3 million with a 1 percent interest rate over 30 years.

If borough officials would have been unable to secure any grants for the project's final phase, Leechburg sewer user fees were expected to more than double, from $33.48 to $76.68.

The fees will still increase, according to Council President Tony Defillippi, but by “significantly less” than what was originally anticipated.

“That grant will definitely help out,” he said. “Council will get together before our next meeting and determine what the rate should be. We're very pleased to have received this funding.”

Leechburg's funding represents a portion of the $81.5 million PennVEST is investing in 14 water infrastructure projects across 11 counties announced this week.

Of that $81.5 million, only $15 million was offered in grants. The remaining $66.5 million was distributed through low-interest loans.

PennVEST spokesman Paul Marchetti said the authority only awards grants to maintain a reasonable sewage rate relative to the municipality's median household income. Of the six agencies that received grants in this round of funding, Leechburg's $6.7 million represented the lion's share.

“The $6.7 million Leechburg received is definitely on the high end, but it's not unheard of,” Marchetti said. “It all goes back to those calculations. Certainly, environmental impact is important for us, but the sole determinant in awarding grants is maintaining a reasonable rate.”

At $33.48 per quarter, Leechburg's sewer fees are already more than five times above what residents paid prior to entering the first phase of the borough's sewer separation project.

The project, which calls for the separation of stormwater and sanitary sewage lines, was mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection when officials realized that an unhealthy amount of untreated sewage was being diverted into the river during heavy rains.

Separating the conjoined lines is designed to ensure that all untreated sewage reaches the Kiski Valley Water Pollution Control Authority's treatment plant in Allegheny Township regardless of the weather.

Leechburg reached its borrowing limit when it spent more than $2.4 million to bring about 40 percent of its system into compliance in the first phase.

The ratepayers shouldered the burden then, as the borough received no aid from county, state or federal agencies.

In 2010, the fees jumped again as the Kiski Valley sewage authority began charging Leechburg higher rates for excess sewage flows than communities that already had separated their entire system. In response, Leechburg Borough sued the sewage authority but lost in 2010 when a Westmoreland County judge ruled against it.

To keep the sewer rates from again increasing dramatically, Defillippi said Leechburg sought support of state Sen. Don White, R-Indiana, who sits on the PennVEST board.

Councilman Christian Vaccaro also credited state Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Washington Township, for supporting the state funding.

White said in a news release issued on Tuesday that the PennVEST funding should expedite the process to “finally” separate the sewer lines, which “are obsolete and contaminating the local watershed.”

“This is a costly project,” White said. “The burden on Leechburg's ratepayers would have been exorbitant. (The money) will go a long way to ease that financial burden and keep rates low.

“The borough has already paid a price in legal fees and utility costs for its obsolete system.”

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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