Major upgrades to Huntington Sanitary board could raise monthly bills

Huntington Sanitary Board plans major upgrades to aging, inadequate systems
Published: Nov. 28, 2022 at 6:55 PM EST
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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - The Huntington Sanitary Board announced plans for a series of sorely needed facility upgrades to a nearly century-old sewer system that is both at capacity and under threat of a federal takeover for repeated water quality violations.

The $200 million project will also separate the lines at 3rd and 5th avenues to reduce flooding risk and improve public safety along these primary corridors that connect the east end of the city to the west end.

Federal and state grants and loans, including through the American Rescue Plan Act, will pay for a majority of the planned improvements. A stepped increase in user rates will be phased in during several years to cover the repayment of the loans for the upgraded system.

“It’s the age of the infrastructure. When you ignore it, after 60 years it has to be replaced,” said Brian Bracey, executive director of the Huntington Water Quality Board (HWQB).

The existing wastewater treatment plant is currently operating at 98% BOD capacity and hasn’t seen a major capital improvement since the 1980s. That limitation could limit the city’s ability to connect any new industry, homes, schools, or businesses to the sewer system -- prohibiting economic development.

“Huntington’s flooding woes are well-documented,” Bracey said. “It only takes an hourly rainfall of one inch to flood our city streets - and the combined overflow of both storm and sewage water pose significant safety hazards, from submerged vehicles to potentially life-threatening delays in emergency vehicle response times.”

From 2015 to 2021, state regulators cited 143 violations of the city’s water pollution control permit for excessive discharge from the wastewater treatment plant. These discharges are a direct result of the plant operating at or near full capacity.

During the same timeframe, the system incurred additional penalties for dry weather discharges, primarily caused by failed pumps and line blockages. Raw sewage is discharged onto the ground or into streams upon each such event. Upon each discharge, the city was cited for failure to appropriately maintain a Combined Sewer System Overflow as required by the city’s Long Term Control Plan (LTCP). If Huntington were in compliance with the LTCP, the allowable number of discharges would be 42 during the seven-year period; the actual number of discharges was 489.

These violations have led to fines from both the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and, as recently as December 2021, more than $325,000 from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. These fines are the direct result of our antiquated system and deteriorating infrastructure.

Those repeated violations put Huntington at risk of a possible federal takeover by the U.S. Department of Justice, as was the case a decade ago in Akron, Ohio.

Closer to home, a non-compliant public service district in Berkeley County, West Virginia was fined more than $500,000 by DOJ in November 2021 for excessive sewer overflows and wastewater quality violations that threatened the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay.

“Our choice is clear,” said Jim Rorrer, HWQB vice chairman. “Continue with the status quo, and the escalating threats to public health, safety, and local self-governance -- or rally together as a community and make a critical investment in Huntington’s future -- on our own terms.”

The Sanitary Board approved the proposed infrastructure upgrades at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Nov. 10. City Council’s Finance Committee voted unanimously on Nov. 14 to forward the project to the full council, which is scheduled to hold the first reading on Monday, Nov. 28. A council vote is expected in mid-December.

The stepped fee increase, which eventually will add $27.20 per month to customers’ minimum bill, will allow the city to access critical grant and low-interest loan financing while providing customers with time to adjust to the increased infrastructure costs.

The stepped fee increase proposed goes as follows:

Phase 1 - $8.18

Phase 2 - $5.30

Phase 3 - $8.02

Phase 4 - $13.58

If the project is approved, the wastewater treatment plant will continue to remain open while renovations and upgrades are made.