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DEP: Johnstown sewer project a 'shining example'
By: Maria Miller
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- It's a project that could run you hundreds, even thousands of dollars whether you want it or not. We're talking about the sewer projects that have been ongoing across the region and the country.
In Johnstown, many homeowner are putting up a fight over the city's decision to require pressure testing of existing pipes. It's a measure the Department of Environmental Protection isn't requiring, but rather an ordinance adopted by the city itself.
And while homeowners might not want to hear it, the plans Johnstown has developed for the project are already being painted by the DEP as a shining example for the rest of the state.
Bulldozers, pipes and cement blocks sit covered in snow in Johnstown's Roxbury neighborhood as winter gives people somewhat of a reprieve from torn up road and yards. But in the coming weeks, crews will be back to work upgrading the sewer system as part of a federal mandate affecting the entire country.
"The problem is that we have, in many instances, so much runoff, rain runoff, that it is flooding the sewage treatment plants," said John Poister, regional spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection's Southwest Regional office in Pittsburgh.
The DEP said Johnstown has been skirting around the issue for at least 30 years, as its treatment plant is not working properly.
"They can't handle it during major storms or snow melts," Poister said. "So what you get is a situation where they literally shut down the plant and bypass where the raw sewage actually goes around the plant and directly into streams and creeks."
That's exactly what he said is happening in Johnstown as illustrated in video given to 6 News by the EADS Group, the company contracted by the city to handle the sewer project. The video, they say, shows raw sewage pouring out of Lauren Run into the Conemaugh River.
Steve Sewalk, the project manager, said the plant in Johnstown is designed to treat 20 million gallons of water a day. But after a major storm, or snow melt, he said the plant sees anywhere from 120 to 150 million gallons, causing the excess to flow into the river.
"That's the single largest overflow in this system and we've seen past records of 40 to 50 million gallons a day of raw sewage that come out of Laurel Run for two to three days in a row," Sewalk said.
"This has been no secret," Poister said. "There's been no secret that for years the Environmental Protection Agency and the DEP have been concerned about this amount of runoff."
To finally fix the problem the city has decided to completely redesign its system and the plans are all laid out in a large binder that contains hundreds of pages of documents and graphs outlining the work planned for each of the neighborhoods in the city and many of the townships and boroughs outside of the city.
For the past several months crews have been busy digging up roads and replacing current lateral lines throughout the city. Not only are homeowners required to tap into the new lines, they're required to first undergo a pressure test to make sure their existing pipes can handle the flow.
Most homes in Johnstown have terracotta pipes that were often installed when the homes were built decades ago and officials admit they're almost always likely to fail.
"I have not seen a terracotta system pass a pressure test," Sewalk said. "I've seen some cast iron ones pass, but not a terracotta pipe."
"What you have with these old terracotta pipes is a situation where they have deteriorated," Poister said. "The joints where they come together have disappeared and water leaks into the system and adds extra pressure that they don't need, that they can't handle."
If the pressure test fails and the pipes break, homeowners are then required to dig up and replace the lines at their own expense.
The DEP does not require the pressure test, only a dye or smokescreen test which more sewer lines in Johnstown would likely pass.
But that might not fix the real problem, the leaky pipes.
The other alternative would be to build a new treatment plant that the EADS Group estimates would cost taxpayers half a billion dollars.
"At the end of the day, would you rather put money into your own house or into a new plant? And that's what a lot of this comes down to," Sewalk said. "You know, it's a hard bite upfront. A big quick pill to swallow, but if its not done this way, then they will pay more over the long run."
For homeowners like Charlene Stanton, replacing the pipes isn't simple or cheap. She has 40 feet of front yard and a garage that will need to be dug up when the pressure tests fail. But she said her problem is not unique.
"I just feel for the people. I feel for the elderly senior citizens who are living on a fixed limited income," Stanton said. "They're struggling to buy medication and food. Who is going to give them a loan of $10,000 to do sewage work and the sewage work is not going to improve the value of anybody's home."
Stanton has been fighting the issue and collecting close to 300 signatures from homeowners who strongly oppose the pressure tests. She turned those names into council last week, but said she doesn't expect a response because a similar petition she turned in in September was never discussed.
"I just feel like this is going to be the economic collapse of Johnstown," Stanton said. "The people just do not have the money to do this. You're going to have people walking away from their homes."
The DEP said terracotta pipes will eventually need to be replaced anyway and said now is the best time to to it.
"At one point or another these pipes were not meant to last 100 years," Poister said. "They were meant to live 30 years, maybe 40 years and they haven't been replaced."
Similiar sewage system upgrades have already been completed in municipalities outside the city that has water flows into Dornick Point and officials said those upgrades are already showing improvement to the system overall.
"Every single person in Dale borough has completed this. It can happen," Sewalk said. "There's a process to it all that's not most pleasant but at the end of the day, city council is doing the best thing for the future because it is the repair, it's not a band-aid."
"Johnstown is probably one of the shining examples in the state right now for doing it the right way," Poister said. "They have decided to do the best possible fix for this problem."
But Stanton is asking city officials to take a step back, look at the real requirements and only do what's needed now.
"This is the gold standard. You could give 120 percent, which I think they're trying to do," Stanton said. "Do the pressure tests, install new lateral lines, it's probably the perfect system to have. But this is Johnstown, Pa., we're a very economically depressed area. People do not have the money for that. I say let's just get by with what the DEP is requiring of us, the smoke and dye test."
The EADS Group said a pressure test shouldn't cost more than $200, and if you have terracotta pipes, they say most contractors won't even test the pipes because of the likelihood of them failing.
Instead, they said contractor will often just give a quote to replace them. And that typically runs around $2,500 for simple lines that run through your yard and to the side of the house. But it could run you into the tens of thousands of dollars if those pipes travel under your garage or basement.
Officials recommended to call around and get quotes from several different contractors.