Delmont sewage problem drags on
When Ed Rebitch first approached Delmont officials about sewage overflows on a Salem Township property he helps manage, he didn't expect a fix to happen overnight. But he didn't anticipate correcting the problem would drag on for more than 20 years.
“My frustration is that it's been going on for so long, and we've dealt with so many people in Delmont over the years,” said Rebitch, who lives next to the property and is a member of the Rock Springs Trust, which manages it.
A force main and gravity sewer line run through the property, which is located off Rock Springs Road. Rebitch said there are two major issues:
• The force main line is being compromised by the acidic, corrosive soil and has sprung multiple leaks, causing sewage to bubble up onto the property and requiring multiple fixes to the line.
• Infiltration and inflow into the gravity sewer line — essentially, storm water making its way into the sewage system — causes manholes on the property to discharge raw sewage directly into a creek that runs to the Beaver Run Reservoir, the primary drinking-water source for Westmoreland County.
“It's not just one residence being affected,” Rebitch said. “It's everyone in the county who drinks water from the Beaver Run Reservoir.”
Michael Kukura, resident manager for the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, said water authority officials are aware of the runoff and have spoken with the state Department of Environmental Protection about it.
“It's not our issue; it's Delmont's sewage issue,” Kukura said. “There is runoff entering the reservoir, so we're doing additional monitoring at that location.”
Raw water undergoes a filtration process and is treated with chlorine before being piped to customers, Kukura said.
“There's 11 billion gallons of water in that reservoir,” he said. “I won't say (the runoff is) nothing, but it's nothing compared to the total amount of water in the reservoir.”
Engineer Kevin Brett, whose firm Lennon Smith Souleret serves as Delmont's engineer, said borough officials are doing what they can to fix the problem.
“The property owner has requested the lines be relocated. His request was forwarded on to the sewer committee, and they have submitted two grant applications to complete the first section of the line work,” Brett said in an email. “The sewer committee's long-term plan — 20 to 30 years — is to replace the force main and relocate the main line to the pump station to a location which is not impacted by stream erosion.”
Rebitch said he'd prefer that the force main be relocated off the trust property and away from the stream, but he is not sure how the borough could accomplish that without a revenue obligation bond and a hike in sewage rates. His view is that when sewage pipes were installed in the mid-1980s, the system was “undersized and under-engineered.”
“When (the) Barrington Ridge (development) was built in the 1980s, there was a lot set aside for a retention pond,” he said. “A home ended up being built on that lot, and so there's no storm water retention there at all. … As you get more development, more parking lots and driveways and more impervious surface, it adds up over time and it ends up here.”
Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection were on the property in early March to address another issue: stream erosion which exposed a section of the gravity line. DEP officials mandated that the line be covered.
DEP Spokeswoman Lauren Fraley said the department has been in contact with Rebitch.
“The department is gathering information on repairs being made and overflow issues within Delmont's system with the goal of working toward a solution,” Fraley said.
Rebitch and DEP officials plan to meet May 3 for a file review, she said.
Borough public works employees also were on the property on March 23, completing work on a retaining wall along the creek to prevent further erosion.That project originally began in the summer 2014, but Rebitch objected to a permanent structure being built outside the borough's right-of-way. State police were called and escorted borough employees from the property. Rock Springs Trust members and the borough eventually agreed on a temporary easement to complete the work last month.
Councilman David Piper, who said public works crews needed only about one extra foot of room outside the right-of-way to build the retaining wall, said he understood Rebitch's frustration, and that this is “a very complex and costly problem.”
“The family talked to us after the meeting and a new agreement was to be drafted and sent to the trust,” Piper said. “I hope they find it adequate. If not, we will do what we have to, to ensure the safety of human health and environment and the integrity of the sewer system.”
Piper said things could get even worse if there were a “catastrophic failure” of the line.
“If there is a catastrophic failure that endangers human health and the environment, DEP would step in and the consequences would be worse than letting us on the extra foot of property,” he said. “I am not sure of all the legal consequences if such an event would occur, but I hope we don't have to find out.”
At the March council meeting, Rebitch suggested a radical solution: installing a pinch valve in the sewage system, which would cause the excess drainage to discharge in Delmont.
“It's a crazy idea, obviously,” Rebitch said. “But you can bet if there was sewage discharging onto the street in Delmont, this problem would have gotten fixed very quickly.”
Council President Andy Shissler said that from a financial perspective, it will be difficult to address the issue until the borough has paid off the 10-year, $1 million loan taken out in 2013 to upgrade the Cramer pump station. Council has voted twice to hike sewage rates since taking out the loan.
Rebitch said borough officials need to stop making “Band-Aid” fixes and do something to fully correct the problems.
“Delmont has to have the political backbone to say, ‘We screwed up. We built this system too small, and we need to raise your rates temporarily until we can get it fixed,'” Rebitch said.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862 or firstname.lastname@example.org.