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

Groups Share Concerns with Lawmakers Over Sewage Plant Site

Wednesday March 28, 2007
The Inter-Mountain

By Cathy Grimes

For more than two years, the issue of the proposed sewage treatment plant being located on the Sharp Farm in Slatyfork has generated fierce controversy in Pocahontas County.

The reasons are twofold: Environmental hazards, the dangers of placing the plant on karst terrain; and the use of eminent domain to take private property.

In an effort to raise awareness to the dangers of the proposed location, The Sierra Club, West Virginia Outdoor Sportsmen, Eight Rivers Safe Development Inc. and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy met with Sens. Walt Helmick, D-15 District, and Clark Barnes, R-15 District, and Delegate Bill Proudfoot, D-37th District, in Charleston earlier this month.

George Phillips, president of Eight Rivers Safe Development Inc., gave a presentation which included photos and images showing prominent karst features, caves, sinkholes and springs of the Upper Elk and Big Springs Fork valleys.

The photos illustrated the dangers of placing million-pound sewage tanks over a karst honeycomb where the risk of collapse of an underground void or cave passage could significantly damage the plant equipment or result in a spill of raw sewage to the surface and underground streams.

"We expressed our concerns with the site and pipeline location," Phillips said. "We also stressed to the senators and delegate the project would not be in the present situation, located on an unsafe and unstable site, had a proper Environmental Impact Statement been prepared as required by West Virginia State Code.

"The lack of the proper EIS is the basis for Eight Rivers Safe Development's legal complaint against the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection," Phillips said.

Regina Hendrix, political chairwoman with Sierra Club and organizer of the meeting, said, "People are just beginning to realize that the proposed sewage treatment plant placed on karst on the headwater of the Elk is a concern of all of us."

The presentation pointed out that underground sewer lines ultimately leak. When the underground line lies below the water table, any leaks at piping joints or manholes result in groundwater entering the system adding to the plant's hydraulic load. This leakage, called infiltration, is so common that design guidelines in the West Virginia State Code -CSR-47-31 recommends that 200 gallons of infiltration per day, per mile of pipeline be factored into plan design capacities to allow for leakage of ground water into the collection system.

In karst, however, the water table is typically below the pipes and the pipes are often exposed to voids and caves which increase the risk for failure. Any leaks from the system will result in raw sewage seeping out and entering the karst groundwater system.

In karst, any contamination is rapidly transported by the water flowing through the underground conduits of caves and underground streams.

"Residents who live in the valley get their water from wells which are part of this underground system," Phillips said. "Any leak from a failed piping joint or any one of the many manholes will result in raw sewage immediately entering and being transported into the underground streams and caves and will have an immediate and lasting impact on these drinking water sources and public health," Phillips said.

"The whole point of the meeting was to make the senators and delegate aware of other options and to make them aware that these organizations are in full support of Tom Shipley and his efforts," Hendrix said.

Hendrix and others in the delegation including Amon Tracey, president of West Virginia Outdoor Sportsmen; Julien Martin, vice president for State of Affairs with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy; and Phillips indicated the senators and delegate expressed quite a bit of concern with the dangers of placing the plant on karst terrain.

"Delegate Bill Proudfoot didn't like the idea of putting pipelines through five miles of that terrain," Tracey said.

"The senators seemed very concerned about the situation," Julien said.

Helmick told The Inter-Mountain, "the presentation was very enlightening and the knowledge valuable. We knew about the area, but we hadn't known the details in depth."

Helmick said he had been asked by the Pocahontas County Public Service District for help in obtaining funding to be used to evaluate alternative sites and also hire a project coordinator. Helmick indicated they would help with the request, but added, "At the end of the day it's the PCPSD's call; legally we can't do anything with it."

Possible Relocation

One possible solution discussed was moving the plant beside the Elk River, if all the environmental studies were performed and the geology proved stable. However, with this option there would still be the risk involved with transporting 2 million gallons per day of raw sewage up, over and down Cheat Mountain and through five miles of karst terrain.

"A treatment plant down beside the Elk River off the karst in a safe location would be acceptable to my family," said Tom Shipley of the Sharp farm and guest of the conservation organizations "However, even with the plant down beside the Elk River, experts and Pocahontas County citizens still have concerns with the pipeline on karst and related health and safety issues.

"If there is a better proposal by conservation groups and their experts which would alleviate the risk of millions of gallons of sewage being piped through miles and miles of karst and problems of inter-basin transfer which is never good for the environment, my family would support it," Shipley said.

Alternatives to Regional Site

According to Phillips, there are alternatives to a regional plant that are less expensive and would have a positive impact on the karst and groundwater in the Big Spring Fork.

The delegation came to the meeting prepared with one such alternative proposal, one which is endorsed by all the groups represented as well as many other conservation groups.

"This was the first time the senators had heard there were other options out there," Phillips said. "There is a lot more opportunity than what's on the table now."

According to Phillips, one alternative would be to retrofit with state-of-the-art technology the existing wastewater treatment plants at Snowshoe/Silvercreek with a technology called Immersed Membrane, which are micro filters that extract ultra-pure water from the aeration basins of a wastewater plant.

"Often these retrofits result in a two-to-five fold increase in treatment capacity with no increase in plant size," Phillips said.

The immersed membrane system would also eliminate the problem of inter-basin water transfer from the Shavers Fork to the Elk River that would occur if the proposed regional plant is built at Slatyfork.

According to Phillips, "Water from the Snowshoe/Silver Creek systems could be returned to the Shavers Fork Basin, improving the flow and quality of water in the headwaters stream, which is also a premier trout fishery."

The immersed membrane retrofit would cost considerably less than the $20 million to build the proposed Slatyfork plant and "recycling water from wastewater effluent is encouraged by the federal government through grants/tax credits to projects which implement this technology," Phillips said.

According to Phillips, a Pittsburgh-based engineering firm has estimated an immersed membrane retrofit of Snowshoe's facility would cost between $5 million and $8 million, a fraction of the cost estimate for the proposed regional plant.

"Membrane systems are the recommended sewage treatment technology option for environmentally sensitive areas," Phillips said. "The Upper Elk and Shavers Fork Headwaters are world class trout fisheries. In the Big Spring Fork, there are reproducing Rainbow, Brown and Brook Trout and pristine caves and springs. If that does not qualify as an environmentally sensitive area, I don't know what does."

For future development in the valley, Phillips recommended small clustered treatment systems rather than the regional plant approach. Here, small treatment plants are built as development occurs. These plants would only be built as local growth and demand required, saving millions of dollars.

The management and operation of these plants would create additional jobs in the area, such as operators, technicians and engineers.

In addition, according to Phillips, the clustered system approach does not require project funds to be spent on unnecessary and expensive collection/transport systems, the pipeline, manholes and pumping stations required to move the sewage down the valley.

This not only reduces the risk of leaks/contamination in the karst valley, but also allows more of the publicly funded project monies to be spent on treatment capacity/technology where the sewage is generated.

The clustered systems approach would allow development to occur anywhere and not just restricted along a narrow corridor that follows the pipeline in the Big Spring Fork Valley.

"Clustered systems are recommended over regional plants by several groups who work to develop wastewater solutions for rural communities," Phillips said. "Locally, the West Virginia Rivers Coalition recommends clustered systems for rural, dispersed communities."

"I'm very pleased with the interest and knowledge these groups and individuals have with the issue," Barnes said of the presentation.

Barnes indicated he also was very aware and concerned with the potential danger to the underground water supply.

"It behooves us to back up and take a second look and it's unfortunate that Thrasher Engineering and Region IV people want to move ahead full steam," Barnes said, "because what's done needs to be done right."

Barnes said he isn't a fan of small cluster systems, "because there are no requirements, the state doesn't have control." But he added, "It could be the solution if the Public Service Commission and state of West Virginia required greater long-term accountability and long-term financial viability by the developers."

According to case studies of Economic Analysis and Community Decision Making for Decentralized Watershed Systems, a study prepared for the National Decentralized Water Resources Capacity Development Project, Washington University, by the Rocky Mountain Institute, "Using small clustered treatment systems is beneficial financially for communities because of the incremental investment in small systems compared to large upfront investments in centralized capacity systems."

The cluster systems, widely viewed positively by developers and homeowners, according to the study, cites the systems as being a good match with its objectives of avoiding large capital expenditures, avoiding political battles over a new treatment plant, providing cost-effective service to developing areas and providing environmental stewardship through higher levels of treatment than other systems.

According to Phillips, the Canaan Valley Institute, a nonprofit, nonadvocacy organization that is committed to providing high quality wastewater treatment at affordable costs to small, rural, often low-income communities, has said it would be happy to work with the Pocahontas County community to develop a comprehensive wastewater plan.

The plan typically focuses on four components: Community engagement, assessment, identifying options and assisting and coordinating design and implementation.

According to information published by CVI, "The answer for many rural communities lies in managed decentralized systems. Treatment systems that are small and dispersed to serve local needs without relying on expensive sewers to collect sewage."

It further states, "These systems can provide an economically viable, environmental sound alternative to municipal sewer systems and treatment plants."