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

Snowshoe May Sell Sewage Plant to Pocahontas PSD

Saturday July 14, 2007
The Inter-Mountain

By Cathy Grimes, Staff Writer

The historic Sharp farm in the small town of Slatyfork in Pocahontas County, has in effect, been held hostage the past two years under the threat of a proposed regional sewage treatment plant being built on the property and the use of eminent domain in acquiring the site. The proposed site for the project adjoins scenic U.S. Route 219 and is a gateway to Snowshoe Mountain Resort. Property owners there are seeing more than red at the prospect of footing a bill for a plant they say they don’t need or want. In recent developments, Snowshoe management is planning to sell its existing sewage treatment facility to the Pocahontas County Public Service District. According to Pocahontas County Commissioner Martin Saffer, “The plant is a money-losing utility, plagued by numerous DEP violations and an infrastructure in need of a complete makeover.” The takeover by the PSD would affect approximately 1,800 homeowners.

“Buying the plant would be part of the process to provide for all the people of the valley,” Mark Smith, PSD treasurer said.

Smith indicated that interim rates would be set by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

But homeowners fear their rates may quadruple in order to make the plant profitable and they say they were never approached about the proposed sale.

“Snowshoe homeowners were never consulted about the proposed action by Snowshoe to sell their sewer operations to the PSD,” Mike Olsen, president of Snowshoe Property Owners Council, said. “This move by Snowshoe and the PSD has left the primary parties who will be charged for the services out of the decision loop. We have had no opportunity to voice appropriate public opposition to this action.”

Olsen said he sees the sale of the sewer plant as a cost reduction effort by Interwest.

According to Sarah Robertson, a spokesperson with the PSC, “The PSD and Snowshoe have reached an agreement for the PSD to take control of Snowshoe’s current customer base system. The system will create a source of income for the PSD.”

However, Robertson added that “nothing has been filed yet with the Public Service Commission.”

Infrastructure funding for the financial part of the acquisition was approved April 24 by the West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, but the project is still in the Phase I portion to acquire the system and the case is ongoing, according to Robertson.

So far, the PSD has refused to consider an alternative plan to building a regional plant and has residents appalled that two of the Pocahontas County Commissioners and the PSD are continuing down this path.

“The current plant was in part for the homeowners through the normal billing cycle and has served current needs,” Olsen said. “There is no need for this proposed plant.”

“The County Commission is an overseer of the PSD with the authority to make decisions that affect the health and welfare of people of the county,” Saffer said. “And by statute to make sure whatever sewer and water system that are put in place are of the latest technology.”

Saffer added that “two of the commissioners refuse to admit the proposed project benefits Snowshoe.”

At its April 3 meeting, the Pocahontas County Commission voted unanimously to request members of the PSD board to watch the presentation given by George Phillips, president of Eight Rivers Safe Development Inc., on the environmental dangers of building on karst terrain, and get back with them for more discussion.

Commission President James Carpenter encouraged Phillips to make the presentation to the PSD, “because ultimately they will make the decision. I think it would be very worthwhile.”

According to Saffer, Scott Millican, a developer and the PSD secretary, had failed to comply.

A letter to the Pocahontas commissioners dated June 26 and signed by all members of the PSD, stated that the group thinks the request was inappropriate because only one commissioner requested their attendance.

The letter further stated that any future requests from the Pocahontas County Commission regarding the Slatyfork wastewater project be submitted in writing and approved by at least two commissioners.

“The PSD members are stonewalling the County Commission,” Saffer said. “They are not taking any responsibility, they defer to their attorney Thomas Michael and Thrasher Engineering.”

Saffer said the PSD should “be responsible to and seek the leadership of the County Commission. They should be open-minded to a window of opportunity to rethink this project.”

The proposed Slatyfork sewage treatment plant is opposed by many local and national environmental groups including, Eight Rivers Safe Development Inc., The Sierra Club, Isaac Walton League, West Virginia Outdoor Sportsmen, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Elk Headwaters Watershed Association, West Virginia Trout Unlimited and the West Virginia Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Because of the serious environmental concerns, these organizations strongly support efforts to find an alternative solution to the regional treatment plant.

The opposing have presented information that locating the million-gallon sewage tank over a karst honeycomb and terrain that is riddled with caves and underground streams would result in long-term effects on the environment if there were a collapse of an underground void or cave passage. A collapse could also significantly damage the plant equipment or result in a spill of raw sewage into the surface and underground streams, the groups have said.

“It doesn’t make sense to build on this topography,” Olsen said. “I don’t think the people of Pocahontas County would want to experience the negative effects if something goes wrong or breaks.

“We can’t understand, with the level of argument taken place so far, why they want to go through with this so quickly when there is so much logical evidence it would be environmentally unsafe,” Olsen said.

The Eight Rivers plan would involve retrofitting the existing Snowshoe plant with safe, state-of-the-art technology, called immersed membrane and would cost between $5 million and $8 million, a fraction of the $20 million estimated to build the Slatyfork regional treatment plant and would result in much less of an increase in sewer rates.

Membrane systems are the recommended sewage treatment technological option for environmentally sensitive areas, according to Phillips.

The small-clustered membrane treatment systems are also a recommended option for future development, as they can be built as development occurs in the valley.

“The concept of the clustered systems is basically building the treatment capacity at the source of the waste, when it is needed,” Phillips said.

The cluster systems do not deny developers the opportunity to build, but developers would have to pay for the systems at their own expense. However, the expense of a regional plant would see homeowners, who have already paid for the existing plant, picking up the tab.

“We are not against development,” Olsen said. “We support responsible development. I would say development is what Snowshoe is all about.”

According to many homeowners, Snowshoe should look seriously at the alternative to the regional plant.

“A long-term strategic plan that considers all developmental needs and is not a short-term solution such as this is going to benefit the people of Pocahontas County and is needed,” Olsen said.

Officials at the Canaan Valley PSD in Tucker County, as well as Fayette County, have opted to spend $3 million to $7 million retrofitting their existing plants rather than the $20 million to build centralized systems.

The PSD has enraged county residents with its plan to use eminent domain to take the land from the Sharp family and pursue the regional plant concept.

The Eight Rivers plan, conversely would eliminate the huge issue of eminent domain, as well as the serious environmental issues.

“It’s time to get off the eminent domain nonsense, it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do,” Saffer said.

“This project and whole episode is hugely important, it involves the will of the people versus the political system,” Saffer said. “I hope to God the will of the people prevails.”