Municipalities Struggle to Deal with Aged and Deteriorating Infrastructure

Municipalities across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania are struggling to address the pressing need to replace and upgrade their aged infrastructure.  The challenge is particularly acute in older municipalities and rural areas where infrastructure such as sanitary sewer and water treatment facilities have exceeded their useful life or are non-existent.

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (“ARRA”) in order to provide for, among other things, needed investments in highway, transportation, and wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure.  Pennsylvania stands to receive an estimated $16 billion dollars in federal stimulus monies under ARRA.  The projected cost of upgrading and repairing Pennsylvania’s critical drinking water and wastewater infrastructure is in excess of $36 billion dollars over the next 20 years.  The funding of water and sewer projects under ARRA is intended to reduce pollution, create jobs and assist communities to address longstanding operational and maintenance problems.

Many Pennsylvania communities are required to substantially upgrade and improve their existing wastewater treatment facilities to bring them into compliance with the tightened nutrient discharge limits of the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy and the requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act, administered by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”).  In 1983 Pennsylvania entered into the Chesapeake Bay Agreement with Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, the EPA and the Chesapeake Bay Commission.  Subsequent agreements between the Chesapeake Bay partners in 1987 and 2000, respectively, moved toward the goal of reducing the controllable nutrient (phosphorus and nitrogen) loads to the Chesapeake Bay.  In 2004, the Commonwealth, through DEP, created the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy which is designed to meet the nutrient and sediment reduction goals and to develop new program initiatives and funding.

Governor Rendell signed an Executive Order on March 27, 2009, creating the Pennsylvania Stimulus Oversight Commission.  The purpose of the Oversight Commission is to ensure the proper allocation of stimulus monies to needed transportation and infrastructure projects.  Mid state municipalities and authorities are receiving millions of dollars in state “H2O” grants earmarked for various sewer treatment and water plant upgrades.  Over $551 million dollars has been designated for projects across Pennsylvania, which funding is derived from an $800 million dollar bond issue by the Commonwealth Financing Agency.  According to the implementation report issued September 10, 2009, in addition to numerous transportation and highway infrastructure projects, 28 of 33 sewer and wastewater projects awarded in April, 2009, have settled, totaling $96.15 million dollars in ARRA investment funding.  Of the 85 projects awarded in July, 2009, 2 have settled and 78 more have had consultations and scheduled settlement.

Pennsylvania is comprised of 2,562 municipalities and ranks third among all states in the nation in the number of independent municipal governments.  The 2008 Report prepared by 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania entitled “Plan Regionally, Implement Locally: An Evaluation of Multi-Municipal Planning And Implementation in Pennsylvania” notes a renewed emphasis in Pennsylvania on regional and community planning and inter-governmental cooperation, particularly in the area of land use planning.  Excessive localism in land development, land use controls and sewer and water treatment can lead to problems at the regional level.

Many municipalities in the Central Pennsylvania region have sewage treatment facilities which are 30 to 40 years old and have not been significantly upgraded or adequately maintained in the intervening years.  The substantial upgrades to existing wastewater treatment facilities and wastewater conveyance systems are necessary to reduce infiltration and inflow (“I&I”) which burdens such facilities as well as to achieve compliance with the mandated nutrient and sediment reduction goals for the Chesapeake Bay.  Consequently, the cost to upgrade these facilities is frequently in the tens of millions of dollars.  Hydraulic or organic overloads to sewage facilities results in the discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage into the environment.  Hydraulic overloads frequently occur during periods of heavy rain when stormwater enters the sanitary sewage system.  Consequently, it is essential that municipalities owning or operating sewage facilities take appropriate steps to control the organic and hydraulic loading on their sewage facilities.

On-lot sewage systems prevalent in more rural areas have demonstrated a significant incidence of malfunction or total failure.  This is frequently the result of inadequate or outdated system design, system misuse, lack of proper maintenance, or a combination thereof.  A recent survey taken from Act 537 sewage facility plans in the area have reported malfunction rates in on-lot sewage systems in the range of 25% to 60%.  Typically the failure or malfunctioning of an on-lot septic system has resulted in the contamination of well water and illness to the inhabitants.  The development and implementation of municipal sewage management programs governing the installation and maintenance of on-lot systems is essential in those municipalities not having municipal sewage treatment facilities.

The availability of federal stimulus monies and grant programs administered through the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (“PENNVEST”) provide a unique opportunity for small and medium-sized communities in suburban and rural areas to deal with their sewer management infrastructure issues.  Consistent with the trend towards multi-municipal cooperation in land use planning, such cooperation can be particularly useful in dealing with sewage treatment infrastructure issues.  Joint municipal, i.e. regional, authorities formed under the Pennsylvania Municipality Authorities Act are well suited for that purpose.  Such authorities address construction, operation and maintenance, as well as financing issues for such facilities.  While smaller, more rural communities are frequently resistant to the concept of publicly owned, municipal sewage treatment and water systems, regional planning and implementation of such projects can prove to be beneficial and often essential.

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