Save the Sharp Farm of Pocahontas County
History and heritage in Slatyfork, West Virginia.

Snowshoe Wastewater Debate Stirs Controversy

Thursday February 2, 2006
WBOY Clarksburg, Fairmont, WV

Growth in residential units at Snowshoe Mountain Resort has surpassed the resort's wastewater treatment capacity.

By Pam Kasey

Stiff opposition to the site proposed for a Pocahontas County wastewater treatment plant has surprised public officials and even has reached the governor's office.

"It's not unusual to run into a situation where a property owner doesn't want to have an improvement put on their property," said W.D. Smith, executive director for the Region IV Planning & Development Council. "But this situation really has ballooned."

A nine-acre site below Snowshoe Mountain Resort, where most of the waste will come from, is the most cost effective, Smith said.

But critics said it's located on geologically unstable territory alongside a scenic highway. It's also on a farm still run by descendants of early settlers and would discharge to a native trout stream, they said.

Siting a Treatment Plant

Growth at Snowshoe Mountain—572 new residential units in the past decade—long ago surpassed the resort's wastewater treatment capacity, resulting in numerous pollution discharge permit violations.

At the same time, the resort wants to add another 500 units by 2010.

Seeking a suitable location for a facility to serve resort property owners and some local residents, the Pocahontas County Public Service District chose the Sharp Farm site.

The five buildings and four treatment vats of the 1.5 million gallon per day facility would serve, in a first phase, about 1,600 Snowshoe property owners and another 280 local residents, according to testimony summarized by Administrative Law Judge Keith George.

The Sharp site is the most economical of the sites that were reviewed, Smith said. Cost-effectiveness is a condition imposed by lenders and regulators. Residential users will pay a flat $49.50 per month, a rate characterized in testimony as the high end of acceptable.

Another desirable is that the site is not in a floodplain, Smith said.

"Another reason: Even though most of this area is in karst topography, this site has been evaluated by a microgravity study and drilling and is not terribly affected by karst," Smith said, referring to an analysis by Thrasher Engineering.

Karst, an unstable and highly soluble geology, can shift and cause leaks that would quickly migrate and pollute groundwater.

"Other sites we've evaluated are either in a floodplain or they're at a distance from the collection system so that additional lines would have to be built, or roads, or bridges," Smith said. "It increases the cost of the project $2 to $3 million, which is significant—money we don't have in the budget—and would ... make people's sewer bills go up."

That budget consists of two no-interest loans totaling $15.2 million through the Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council and the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, plus the transfer of about $2 million in collection and treatment assets from Snowshoe.

Settler's Descendant Disagrees

West Virginia native Tom Shipley gave up his business in Indiana a year ago to become the sixth generation in his mother's family to take care of the Sharp Farm.

"It was a great sacrifice but a heartwarming honor," he said.

When Shipley talks about the farm, he talks about American Indian artifacts on the land, the settlers' cemetery there and visits from Robert E. Lee and Eleanor Roosevelt.

He talks about the Highland Scenic Highway and Elk River trout.

And he talks about the country store that his great-grandfather L.D. Sharp started 120 years ago, which he operates now. He talks about L.D. Sharp's house, a house where his great-uncle installed bathrooms in each of the bedrooms so Shipley could have an income running it as a bed and breakfast.

Shipley plans to expand beyond the store, bed and breakfast and campground, possibly adding tourist cabins, a hunting lodge or a fishery.

He said the treatment facility would undermine those plans.

"The sewage treatment plant would be (1,000 feet away), four open human waste tanks," he said. "The prevailing wind is always blowing east, which would be right through our country store. And when you have a B&B next to a sewer treatment plant, you're not going to have any customers. That's why I'm saying my livelihood will be taken."

More than 1,000 community residents have petitioned for another site to be found for the plant, Shipley said. The West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited and other fishing and outdoor groups have requested the same.

As of last week, the Sharp family counsel refused PSD representatives further entry on the land, Smith said.

"We've never said we hate Snowshoe or we hate (resort owner) Intrawest," Shipley said. "We simply want the plant moved to a better site."

Certificates and Permits

George recommended the state Public Service Commission grant the PSD a certificate of convenience and necessity for the facility, and the PSC is considering that now.

Following that, a pollution discharge permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection has two snags.

First is discharge to the headwaters of the Elk River, which hosts prized reproducing trout populations that could be disturbed by warmer water.

"The district engineers are prepared to recommend to reduce flows for a period of time during low-flow conditions of the stream"—primarily October and November, Smith said—"and monitor the effect of the temperature on the receiving stream." If temperature is a problem, he said, they would install technology to cool the effluent.

The second issue is karst. DEP geologist George Dasher contradicted Thrasher's analysis, writing in his own Dec. 12 report that the plant would be constructed "... over karst and—as such—could be threatened by any sudden soil collapse..."

It is not yet clear what the implications of that report will be.

In response to letters and a petition, Gov. Joe Manchin has offered the state's help.

"If there is a suitable and viable alternative site on state property, we are certainly willing to work with local officials to make that site available," said Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg, an offer that has been communicated to all agencies and officials involved and has not drawn a request as of Feb. 1.

A State Rail Authority property was considered briefly; Keith Moran of Thrasher testified he thought it would cost at least an additional $1.5 million to construct there. Shipley said he would like to see the site receive further attention.

The PSC's decision is due by Feb. 28. At that time, "should the PSD need to utilize their powers of eminent domain, they'll do it," Smith said.

If that happens, Shipley said, he will fight it unapologetically.