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One Word Can Make All the Difference

Back in the early 70s, my township completed the construction of a new sewage treatment plant. The discharge point approved by the then-Department of Environmental Resources (DER), was a lake that was and still is the centerpiece of the community. Attempts at expanding the wastewater treatment system of the adjacent borough to accommodate the need of the surrounding township proved unsuccessful. For reasons that are hard to comprehend, the two communities were at loggerheads with each other for any actual joint efforts. As a result, their discharge was into the stream that emptied the Lake.

This treatment plant enabled the township to grow and extended the service into a designated but unutilized commercial district, beside the denser lakeside residential areas. As the DER transformed into what is now known as the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), the increase in various regulations made staying in compliance difficult and costly. The adjacent borough had minimal build-out left, while the township was teeming with open land. Housing and subdivisions were on the increase, which over time burdened the township’s treatment plant with heavier flows. The system was primarily built with clay tile pipe. This was pretty much the norm at that time, but subsurface movement, lack of preventive maintenance, and the typical aging process found the system plagued with I & I (inflow and infiltration) by the 1990s.

Upon my arrival as manager for this township, the situation had elevated to a critical level. The area was justifiably proud of the lake and the recreational aspect it brought to the community. A group of educated citizens began to monitor the lake and the effect of this sewage discharge point. It appeared things were changing for the worse, and quick action was needed to rectify this situation. Several possible solutions were tossed about; the craziest was to place a pipe on the bottom of the lake to a discharge point of the exiting stream. In hopes of rerating the plant with some minor upgrades failed when a surprise visit by the DEP found that things operationally were not getting proper attention. The plant operator retired that week, and new people were brought on board. The final solution was to pump the treated sewage over steep terrain to another stream that emptied below the Lake. Two heavy-duty pumps were installed, and the piping was directional bored to the discharge area. Now, this seems like a simple process, but it took a lot of time, effort, and money by a lot of folks to make this happen. Problem solved, right? Not even close!

Numerous meetings with DEP officials and engineers laid out plans to increase the size of the existing plant to provide room for at least 20 years of growth. A building moratorium was placed on any construction in the sewer district. This significantly affected growth for a couple of years as this process slowly churned onward.

The DEP and the local state senator made it clear that they would prefer a single plant location for the area versus multiple treatment plants. Although they would have to accept the township's position of increasing the current treatment system, a battle between the two communities over the ability to utilize the neighbor's system carried on. It finally went to the Environmental Hearing Board Judge in Harrisburg for a final decision. The final ruling forced the neighbors to allow the improvements to their system to accommodate the township's growth, and the state senator promised to provide money to the township to help make that happen. The reason it was basically forced upon the township to relocate their treatment came down to one word in the original DCNR agreement from the early 1970s. The plant was listed as "temporary." This one word made all the difference and gave the department all the leverage it needed to accomplish its goal of decommissioning the treatment at this location. Now, the former plant is nothing more than a vast lift station that sends the sewage over the hill to the neighbor’s plant for treatment.

Unfortunately, an expensive lawsuit emerged during the retrofitting due to an argument between the contractor and the inspector over the slope of a pipe at a crossing with another pipe. It ended up being quite ugly and cost the township $100,000 to get out from under it, and others had just as much money in the situation. Again, there was a lot of negotiation going on during this whole operation. It reminded me of a great comment made by our attorney. When the judge’s final ruling leaves both parties disappointed, it most likely was a fair decision. Neither side got precisely what they wanted, but a reasonable compromise was delivered.

The lesson here is that professional help is needed in these types of situations. KMS is a professional group re

ady to assist your municipality with management options. Sometimes things can become very complex, and experienced team members can make all the difference. "Fire this thing up" if it's "temporary," it needs a permanent solution; consider a Keystone Municipal Solution.


About the Author

David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.

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