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Johnstown not backing down as residents continue to fight pressure testing
By: Maria Miller
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- It's a project mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection to eliminate runoff at sewer treatment plants. Municipalities across the state are being required to replace their old, outdated sewer systems and homeowners are required to tap into the new lines.
The City of Johnstown has taken a different approach to the project, requiring its homeowners to pressure test their existing pipes before connecting to see if they can handle the flow. It's a method not required by the DEP and one that contractors admit is sure to fail.
Most roads in Johnstown are dug up, covered in gravel and potholes. Heavy machinery sits around just about every corner and yards are a muddy mess. Many question if that is what the DEP referred to when it called Johnstown's sewer project "a shining example."
The reality for many Johnstown residents is not just their yards needing dug up, it's their landscaping, front porches, even basements. And homeowners told 6 News they're already receiving estimates in the thousands of dollars to replace their sewer lines when pressure tests fail.
"It's stretching it. I mean, fortunately I can afford something like this but I don't feel it's right," said John Varner, who lives in the Moxham section of the city. "There's a lot of people around that can't afford this. And it's an insult to everybody that's out there."
Varner is one of hundreds of city residents asking city council to wait and only require pressure testing if replacing the main lines doesn't solve the problem or if smoke and dye tests, which are currently the only state mandate, fail.
"They come on up through here by 2019, they're going to know whether it's working or not. If it isn't working come 2019 then maybe go through the pressure tests or do something then, come up with something different," Varner said. "You still got three years to do it."
Officials said that won't solve the problem. The sewer treatment plant in Johnstown was designed to treat 20 million gallons of water a day, but after a major storm or snow melt, the plant sees anywhere from 120 to 150 million gallons, causing the excess to flow into the river. And the DEP said Johnstown has been skirting around the issue for at least 30 years.
"We have put this off since 1915. That is the first consent order that the city was given," said Johnstown City Manager Kristen Denne. "For a hundred years, we have been bucking the system and breaking the law. Nobody wants to hear any of our excuses any longer. I wish it was that simple, I truly do."
Denne said no one is excluded from the project. That means city buildings, like the century-old public safety building and city hall, will also be required to pressure test along with the dozens of businesses, including those store fronts which sit vacant and abandoned.
But it's not just businesses and homeowners who will feel the pinch. There are dozens of churches in the city who have received estimates in the tens of thousands of dollars to replace their lines when the pressure tests fail.
"I'm worried about tearing all the floors up and all the lines, you know and then it has to be all patched," Frank Rehn said. "How do you take something that's 30 to 40 years old and match it to what you have now? I don't know."
Rehn is a trustee at the Roxbury Church of the Brethren, a church already struggling to survive.
"Our congregation right now, we're probably lucky if we have 50 people," Rehn said. "We're averaging about 40 people keeping this big church going and that's what is sad. We mostly have elderly people which are passing away."
The church is in the process of getting several estimates to replace its pipes. Last week the church hired a local contractor to take a look.
"Every time we come out to give a bid, we run a sewer camera down and we look for any existing issues being back pitched, or any broken pipes," said Tom Cummings, owner of Ground Control. "We located all the tie-ins, get a depth and then we can use that for bidding purposes."
For the past few years Cummings said his business has been consumed by replacing sewer lines. It's a project, now in the city, he sees first hand and agrees should have been done decades ago.
"It needs ... the whole infrastructure ... the city side and the residential side to fix the problem," Cummings said. "The problem is a lot of people just don't have the money which makes it tough."
And with most of the congregation already digging deep to pay for their own homes, they're finding it hard to donate to help their church.
"We put it in our newsletter and we announce it practically every week in church that you know, we're taking up a collection," Rehn said. "It's tough because we have an elderly congregation and they're all on fixed incomes. So that's the sad part."
"On a big job like this you're probably looking anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 on my price scale," Cummings estimated. Rehn said he's just hoping that price doesn't go any higher.
The issue of pressure testing has started a revolution of sorts among city residents who increasingly oppose the mandate set forth by city council. It's a council whose meetings have been packed as of late with angry residents who hold signs that ask for council resignations.
Many of those same residents have hit the streets, picketing in front of city hall. They call themselves "Charlene's Army," named for Charlene Stanton, who has made it her mission to fight pressure testing. She's spent the past several months knocking on doors, gathering hundreds of signatures for at least two petitions she's already turned in to city hall.
"I started talking to some neighbors and found out the price of what their repair work was going to be. We're talking $10,000 if not more," Stanton said. "The more that I went out talking to the people in the different communities, it was heartbreaking that this is what it's come to and city council is not listening to the people."
Varner said some people who've recently bought properties in the city to try to repair them said they may just abandon them due to the added sewer work costs.
"I've had some people tell me they bought the houses to try and start fixing them up to make them livable and that," Varner said. "What they're telling me is, for all the more value that their house is, that if they put this kind of money into it, I've had some people tell me they're just going to leave the house. Just abandon it."
Denne agrees no one is enthusiastic about the pressure testing, but she insists it needs to be done.
"Nobody likes pressure testing," Denne said. "I don't like pressure testing, but it is a necessary demon in order to avoid a much higher cost that will be much more detrimental to the community."
Denne is talking about a change to the sewer treatment plant that, without these modifications at the homeowners expense, will cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars to build.
"We are trying to prevent that at all costs by handling this issue with about $200 million in construction plus pressure testing," Denne said. "That's roughly a $300 or $400 million savings to the rate payers. That's the issue I don't think people getting across."
While residents and council continue to disagree, one thing is for sure: Neither are backing down.
"The people of Johnstown are outraged, fed-up and they've had enough," Stanton said. "It's time Johnstown City Council listens to the people."
"If city council will open their eyes a little bit and listen to the public out here and say, 'Hey, give us a chance,' that's all we're asking," Varner said. "Give us a chance. We'd appreciate that."
Deene stopping the project now isn't going to be a viable solution.
"I will tell you this, you can take me away, you can take the engineering company away and you can take this entire council away. The project still needs to be completed," Denne said. "Come year 2022, it still has to be zero overflows."
Cambria County owns three of the largest buildings in the downtown section of the city, the Cambria County War Memorial, the Johnstown Senior Center and Central Park Complex. But because that part of the city isn't scheduled to complete its part of the project until near the deadline in 2022, the commissioners told 6 News they're not even thinking about receiving estimates for a few more years.
As for homeowners, businesses and churches, local contractors are urging people to get a few different estimates because prices can fluctuate in the thousands of dollars depending on who does the work.