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Senator Eichelberger answers questions about the state and Tyrone’s responsibility in the Chesapeake Bay Compliance Plan

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles that will appear in The Daily Herald to highlight issues that were addressed at Senator John Eichelberger’s town hall meeting held Tuesday night in Tyrone. Other topics in the series include wind development and flood control.)
Under the federal Clean Water Act, the Chesapeake Bay is listed as an impaired waterway. Pennsylvania, under former Governor Tom Ridge, and other states made a commitment under the Chesapeake 2000 agreement to help improve water quality be reducing the level of nutrients – specifically nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments – that pollute the bay and cause “dead zones.”
Pennsylvania is obligated to reduce yearly nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment discharges to the bay to no more than 71.9 million pounds, 2.46 million pounds, and 0.995 million tons, respectively. Through 2006, Pennsylvania has reduced nitrogen loading to the bay by 25.8 million pounds (45 percent of total), phosphorus loading by 1.72 million pounds (60 percent of total), and sediment by 0.42 million pounds (81 percent of total).
The federal requirements driving Pennsylvania’s obligations are very real and very specific. If the commonwealth can’t reach the federal requirements in 2010, a bay-wide compliance plan will be established and imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
At Tuesday evening’s town hall meeting at the Tyrone Senior Center, 30th District Senator John H. Eichelberger, Jr. cleared up the many rumors and questions that local residents who will be affected by increased sewer rates had about Tyrone’s sewage treatment plant and its need to comply with the bay standards.
“Unfortunately for us, Blair County is one of the counties in Pennsylvania that are in this watershed,” stated Eichelberger. “In fact, the 30th District is all in the watershed, so I have all these municipal sewage plants talking to me regularly and they have all talked to me about their difficulties with this situation.”
The nitrate and phosphate standards have been changed and are much more stringent, but other states have much more stringent standards than Pennsylvania, according to the senator.
Eichelberger said that Tyrone’s sewage treatment plant meets the nitrate level, but the plant does not meet the phosphorus level. He stressed that Tyrone is not in compliance with the new standards.
Pennsylvania’s agricultural industry collectively is the largest contributor of nutrients to the bay’s tributaries, discharging 46 percent of the nitrogen and 58 percent of the phosphorus flowing into the bay from the several states in the watershed.
“Twenty percent of the problem is coming from sewage plants, about 80 percent is not,” said Eichelberger. “The farmers are being monitored separately from the plants by separate measures. About 17 to 20 percent of this problem is coming from state forest land.”
Eichelberger wanted to make it clear to the public that the bay clean-up is a “federal mandate.” He said the EPA is the one that’s controlling it, not the state. If the commonwealth does not meet certain benchmarks by 2010, and certain sewage plants are identified, like Tyrone, and are not in compliance by a certain deadline, the federal government will fine them on a daily basis.
Eichelberger added that the maximum federal fine for non-compliance is set at $32,000 a day.
The Tyrone sewage plant upgrades to be put in compliance carries a bill of around $400k to $500k, but the borough has brought the total price to $3.7 million because of other upgrades that are planned to be completed. Presently, the bill falls on the backs of the sewer rate payers because of it being a federally unfunded mandate.
“Tyrone’s choosing to make some other improvements in the plant, and other plants that are in the same situation usually have a list with two columns: one is the requirements to meet the new Chesapeake Bay standards, and the other is additional work they’re getting done,” said Eichelberger.
He continued saying that municipalities like Tyrone have to go out for financing and have engineering work done, and other aspects that go along with the upgrades, so many townships and borough’s, like Tyrone, are getting it all done at the same time.
“That’s typical across the state,” added Eichelberger.
What can be done to assist municipalities like Tyrone that need to get in compliance? The senator spoke of a few options that are currently in the works or already are active in Harrisburg, such as nutrient credit trading.
“Pennsylvania has this nutrient credit trading program, which you can trade some credits and not have to invest in the work to get the sewage plant up to spec, but there’s very few people doing it,” said Eichelberger. “There’s a lot of problems right now with the program, but maybe it will improve.”
The senator discussed that he and some of his colleagues are putting together a “regional bond issue,” because sewage plants don’t really have a place to get money as competitively as they could. The state has a low-interest loan fund through PennVest, but Eichelberger says there’s not enough money in it.
“We’re going to put together a regional bond that people can enter into if they want to, get a lower interest rate, and that will save money on the sewage rates,” said Eichelberger. “We have some local banks working on that with us and we’re going to have a meeting soon to get it all explained to everybody.”
He added, “We’ll probably borrow $25 to 30 million, then all these plants that will spend $3 to 4 million can borrow money from that and get a cheaper rate compared to conventional financing.”
Eichelberger said that the Chesapeake Bay Compliance Plan is a “big” issue and if it doesn’t get straightened out and completed at these local levels, the municipalities won’t be allowed anymore development if its sewage treatment plants aren’t brought into compliance by the deadline.
“That’s going to be another problem,” said the senator. “We’re going to stop growth and our tax-base is going to be hurt. Not just in Tyrone, but the whole central part of the state.”