State agency says authority improperly reported problems at plant
The Upper Montgomery Joint Authority (UMJA), servicing sewer customers in Red Hill, Pennsburg and East Greenville boroughs, as well as a small portion of Upper Hanover Township, has received a stern warning from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) saying the authority can not issue any more connections and must plan to expand in order to handle current and anticipated demands.
UMJA was also ordered to submit a written corrective action plan (CAP) and a connection management plan (CMP) to DEP within 90 days stating how it will attempt to reduce the overload at the Mensch Dam Road, Upper Hanover Township facility and how it will provide the needed capacity.
The DEP letter, dated March 8 and addressed to Glenn Quinn, executive superintendent at the plant, says members of the state agency met with Quinn and authority engineer Charles Fagan on Dec. 28, 2011 to discuss problems at the plant dating back to Oct. 2010. Those problems included exceeding allowed effluent levels for the documented six months. According to the letter, at the meeting to discuss the penalty for exceeding effluent limits, DEP officials learned the source of UMJA’s problems were more than just industrial source issues.
The agency said UMJA’s violations were due to wastewater infiltrating its collection system during storms, but also said that in the past sanitary sewer overflows weren’t properly reported to DEP and that annual reports didn’t accurately represent conditions or flows within the system and entering the treatment plant.
“…The Department was unaware of the magnitude of I & I (infiltration and inflow) issues the authority is experiencing, the existence of SSOs (sanitary sewer overflows) within the collection system or the hydraulic problems at the treatment plant,” the letter stated, noting DEP believed it was premature to assess penalties to the authority while it was still likely accruing violations.
So DEP said the authority must prohibit new connections to the overloaded sewer facility and plan to design, finance and construct facilities that can provide for the necessary capacity in the foreseeable future.
The news of no more EDUs (equivalent dwelling units) from the sewer plant came as a surprise to both area officials and others as Pennsburg borough council members found out about the problems at the facility from the engineering firm for a local business planning to build in the borough.
That engineering firm, Irick, Eberhardt and Mientus, received a letter from the authority March 18 stating it could not issue any new sewer connections. The firm represents North Star Construction who planned to build an 8,790-sq.-ft. building for business Valley Eye on about an acre and a half of land off Pottstown Avenue between CVS and the railroad.
Pennsburg Borough Council President John Lear said he was unhappy about the circumstances at council’s Tuesday night meeting. Lear, who said borough officials were given a “song and dance” saying the authority talked about the issue and it was reflected in their minutes, said he and other officials were unable to find anything about the authority’s meeting with DEP or a moratorium on new connections in those minutes. Further, the authority said they were going to announce the moratorium at their Tuesday night meeting.
“If you can’t put this stuff out front, what are you hiding?” Lear said. “The sewer overflows were not being properly reported and DEP was unaware of the magnitude of the issues…That tells me they weren’t being truthful.”
Aside from concern about improper conduct at the facility, council members said they were unhappy to have to have heard about the issue from a third party, not from the authority, or their appointed borough representatives on the authority board. One official referred to the authority as a “good old boys club.”
“We’re the ratepayers and they are our representatives. They owe no allegiance to Pennsburg though…It’s just a paycheck to them. The ratepayers should know as soon as it happens,” Lear said. “I mean it could be stifling for some businesses. We’re trying to get out of the economy we’re in.”
Council members were told by representatives of Irick, Eberhardt and Mientus that they were informed EDUs could be released in a piecemeal basis once the issues are taken care of at the plant. That firm constructed a backup plan to apply for a holding tank for sewage so it could move forward with construction at the site. Council later voted to grant preliminary and final land development for Valley Eye. The firm said based on information it was given, the EDUs could be released in six to nine months.
Others, however, may not be so lucky. Plans at the Still Water retirement community off Montgomery Avenue will be stalled until they can be hooked up to sewer, officials said.
Pennsburg council moved to send a letter expressing their “displeasure” with the issues at the authority to be dated April 4.
In a phone interview Wednesday morning, Quinn acknowledged the authority has their share of problems.
“Every old system with terra cotta pipe has infiltration and inflow issues but we have more than our share,” he noted. “That is unacceptable to me. But overall this is not something that people were unaware of. You couldn’t drive through any one of the three boroughs during a storm without seeing overflowing manholes in the streets and diluted sewage coming out.”
Quinn, who insisted the authority’s minutes did reflect discussion about getting a consent order from DEP, but not knowing its specifics, said the authority has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs over the last several years and has a lot more work to do in the future.
He said the authority plans to take out a $1 million construction loan to replace or install new liners in the aging pipes and, secondarily, to install flow meters to measure inflow during storm events. Quinn said Silk Alley in Pennsburg and School Alley in East Greenville would likely be among the first to have infrastructure replaced or repaired.
As far as the alleged discrepancies in reporting problems to DEP and inaccurate annual reports to the agency, Quinn said since he took over in the executive superintendent position he has brought the authority’s problems to DEP. He said couldn’t comment on what happened in the past.
He said the authority is moving forward with DEP’s requirements for corrective action and connection management plans within the allowed 90 days.
“It’s my hope that once we start with those, we will be allowed to release a certain number of EDUs. We do know of a small number of construction projects this is affecting,” Quinn noted.