Concerns aired over new sediment rules

Senate committee told of high cost to save Bay

CHAMBERSBURG — In Blair County, officials from a few municipalities have mentioned they may need to enact a mechanism at some point to generate money to pay for compliance with new rules for reducing sediment that stormwater carries into area streams.

In Franklin County, officials from one municipality have already enacted a stormwater fee egregious enough to generate a State Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing here last week.

The hearing showed how high the cost of complying with Municipal Separate Storm Systems regulations can be, but also how the population distribution in Blair County may be helping to shield local property owners from those high costs — for now — in contrast to what’s happening in Greencastle Borough.

For Brian Harbaugh, owner of Precision Manufacturing & Engineering Co., the annual $14,000 stormwater fee levied by the borough constitutes an emergency.

“I have no problem with saving the (Chesapeake) Bay,” said Harbaugh, referring to the body of water that receives the sediment and accompanying nitrogen and phosphorus from streams in this part of the state.

But the “rain tax” imposed by Greencastle is equivalent to a two-week payroll for Precision, which has 19 employees, said a company finance worker after the meeting. The firm can’t simply add the 3 to 5 percent cost of that rain tax to customer bills without the risk of losing business, Harbaugh told the committee.

That means there is less money for employee wages and bonuses, health care, 401(k) plans and tooling and supplies for the shop, he said.

If he should sell the 10-acre business property, he’d need to disclose that it comes with that $14,000 fee attached, he said.

“Your concerns — you made them real,” said state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, who organized the hearing. “It’s so alarming.”

One business property owner in Greencastle is paying $33,000, based on impervious square footage, according to the borough website.

Schools also billed

The Greencastle-Antrim School District will need to pay $47,000 — school property isn’t exempted — so school taxes will ultimately reflect that additional expense, according to Harbaugh and a Greencastle official.

There’s just one small stream that runs through the borough, and no indication it collects much sediment as it passes, Harbaugh said.

By contrast, it’s not hard to tell how that same stream picks up sediment, if you drive along the back roads outside the borough on rainy days, he said.

But the MS4 program doesn’t apply to most of those rural areas because those areas are not “urbanized” and thus don’t qualify for MS4 regulation, pointed out Sylvia House, zoning and code enforcement administrator for the mostly developed Antrim Township, which surrounds Greencastle.

Both Greencastle and Antrim have had regulations in place for decades to prevent storm runoff pollution from reaching streams, yet those municipalities are the ones that need to come up with projects to reduce their sediment outfalls by 10 percent during the current five-year MS4 permit period, which expires in 2023, House and others said.

It means they need to find ways to shrink an already small problem, even as the rural areas go unattended, according to Greencastle Mayor Benjamin Thomas.

It’s costly and inefficient, according to House.

It’s as if a real estate company assigned a cleanup crew for a farm property it was trying to sell, agreed to pay the crew by the pound of dirt removed and the assigned the crew to the nearly spotless kitchen and not permitting it to attack a filthy barn, House said.

United effort helps

In Blair County, the urbanized area that falls under MS4 encompasses 11 municipalities, which have joined together in a council of governments called the Intergovernmental Stormwater Committee, and — although its Pollution Reduction Plan calls for removing 1.4 million pounds of sediment per year at a cost of $6.3 million — there seems to be enough territory involved to find worthwhile projects and enough municipalities involved to spread the cost, at least so far.

Intergovernmental cooperation is ideal in the case of MS4 because “drainage does not pay attention to man-made boundary lines,” it allows for unified administration and engineering and a unified message and because “each community pays only a share,” said Blair County’s Antis Township Manager Lucas Martsolf, who testified at the hearing with ISC coordinator Chelsey Ergler and Blair County Conservation District Manager Donna Fisher.

Asked whether the Franklin County municipalities have considered joining others to create their own regional organization, officials indicated that the urbanized-area limitations in Franklin there tend to make that unfeasible.

Thomas suggested regulatory changes that would allow for spreading the work beyond Greencastle and Antrim by other means — a “common sense” approach that would let property owners, especially farmers, outside urbanized areas to take on projects, for which they would be paid with the money that would otherwise go for the less-efficient work that Greencastle and Antrim will need to come up with.

That would relieve the need for prevailing wages, which increase the cost of projects, and it would allow those projects to be done where they would do the most good, Thomas said.

Cost strains budget

With only 4,000 people, and a $1.6-million annual budget, Greencastle can’t keep up the strain of raising $630,000 a year, the amount needed to pay MS4 compliance, said Borough Manager Eden Ratliff.

MS4 has suddenly become the costliest of all the borough’s services, Ratliff said.

Put the program on hold so the Department of Environmental Protection, with permission from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, can come up with more reasonable alternatives, Ratliff and House urged.

“We can’t sustain this,” Ratliff said.

The MS4 program seems to be as misguided as the recent one overseen by DEP that required billions of dollars worth of upgrades to sewer plants, yet “moved the needle” in reducing pollutants delivered to the Chesapeake by less than 4 percent, said state Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams County, who sat on the hearing panel.

One problem with the MS4 program is its reliance on modeling to determine the amounts of sediment that need to be removed, rather than actual sampling and analysis, officials said.

“Are we getting the bang for our buck?” Moul asked. “We’ve got to do better.”

“As legislators, we have to deal with this and help in some way,” Ward said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.