No solid numbers back up new sewer regulations

At the Legislative recap meeting hosted by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce in early May, Sen. Herb Snyder was asked which legislation, beside the MARC train bill, had the most local significance. His answer was the sewer bond legislation.

This raised questions for me, but first a little background is in order as the legislation relates to the Chesapeake Bay.

We all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay. The original Chesapeake Bay Program was a voluntary regional partnership formed in 1983 by Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia (having formed the Chesapeake Bay Commission), the District of Columbia, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise signed West Virginia on to it in 2002.

In 2009, everything changed when President Obama signed The Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order that established a Federal Leadership Committee, chaired by the EPA. From this committee emerged a Watershed Implementation Plan that included a mandate to upgrade 13 sewer plants in the Eastern Panhandle. The current cost estimate for the upgrades is $200 million.

In 2011, Snyder was instrumental in passing legislation authorizing a $100 million bond ostensibly to help mitigate the impact on the ratepayer. Additional legislation was passed this past session to expedite its issuance to this year. A real sense of urgency. The revenue stream to pay for the bond will come from excess lottery funds — $6 million annually for 30 years. So let’s do the math; over that 30-year period the bond will cost $180 million, 44 percent of which will be paid to the bank in interest (more than $2.5 million a year).

The bond is being touted as the savior of the ratepayer, but it only covers half the cost, if there are no cost overruns. The rest will be borne by ratepayers. Rates will go up, a lot, but no one is offering to estimate by how much. There may be some very unpleasant surprises.

Then there’s the revenue stream – “excess lottery funds.” According to a recent article in The Charleston Gazette, “competition from new casinos in Maryland and Ohio continues to put the squeeze on state lottery revenues, which fell nearly 12 percent in April.”

Ratepayers in Berkeley County are already starting to feel the pinch. Late last month by a 5-2 vote, the Martinsburg City Council passed a rate increase to pay for a new sewer treatment plant to meet the EPA mandate regarding the WIP. Both dissenting council members cited the EPA in explaining their vote. Said Councilman Baker, “the more I think about it, the more I think we should fight the EPA.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation has done just that — they’ve taken the EPA to court. According to President Bob Stallman: “We all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay. This lawsuit is about how we reach that common goal. Farm Bureau believes EPA’s new regulation is unlawful and costly without providing the environmental benefit promised.”

Stephen Butler of the West Virginia Farm Bureau concurs, calling the EPA’s total maximum daily load, or TMDL, the result of faulty computer models that the EPA even admits are erroneous. “It is inappropriate to base a regulatory program on unsound data,” Butler said.

We are being mandated to spend $200 million based on computer models. I am not a big fan of computer models, I prefer hard data. At the water symposium at Shepherd University in March of last year it was acknowledged that the EPA mandates are based on computer modeling. Participating in the symposium was Shepherd University Professor Peter Vila who estimated that based on his data, local sewer treatment plants contribute about 1 percent of the nutrient load that winds up in the bay.

I know that extrapolations can be problematic but let’s do the math anyway. If it costs $200 million to take care of 1 percent of the problem, will it cost $20 billion to take care of the entire problem? That would represent an expenditure of approximately $77,000 per person for the entire Eastern Panhandle eight-county region.

Regulators and elected officials generally aren’t concerned about quaint notions such as cost vs. benefit or ROI. Further, the EPA only has jurisdiction over point-source pollution such as sewer treatment plants. When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The EPA has recently faced significant pushback through legal action regarding its mandate.

At the legislative recap, Snyder said sewer treatment plant upgrades will allow for future growth. However, if that growth fails to materialize, and you have a home with a septic system, you might start to worry that desperate local officials at some point may try to force you to hook up to that expensive upgrade in order to help them pay for it. If you hear anyone talking about how many septic systems there are in Jefferson County (by the way, it’s 11,300 or so), that may well be what is in the back of their mind.

— Elliot Simon

writes from Harpers Ferry

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