LEWISTOWN - Representatives from four local municipalities met with Pa. Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary John Hanger in Lewistown on Thursday morning to discuss the establishment of a regional sewer authority.
"The DEP has a general policy of supporting regional projects," Hanger said. "This is a long-standing policy, often regional projects lead to better results."
Hanger stated that the DEP has two reasons behind its policy of supporting regional projects such as the one Lewistown, Burnham, Derry and Granville are proposing: Costs are usually less and regional projects tend to lead toward better services for communities.
Sentinel photo by BUFFIE BOYER
Lewistown Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Mike Dippery, left, explains the operations of the plant to Department of Environmental Protection Acting Secretary John Hanger, second from right, Thursday morning while Lewistown Borough Council President Jim Felmlee, second from left, Ron Jager and Lee McDonald follow the tour. Hanger later joined a meeting to discuss the possibility of a regional wastewater plant between Granville Township, Burnham Borough, Lewistown Borough and Derry Township. See more photos at cu.lewistownsentinel.com.
"This isn't a philosophy- we've learned this over time," Hanger said. "I know you want to make the best decisions for your community. I'm confident that from where we sit, a regional authority is going to be your best choice."
Hanger said the DEP favors regional projects when it has grants to distribute, adding that Pennsylvania-like the entire nation-has a big backlog of infrastructure projects that need funding to complete.
"We don't have enough state or federal money to meet those requests - not even close," Hanger said. "The grant application process is very competitive, its a nasty game of musical chairs, when the music stops there are a lot of people that don't have chairs."
Jeff Snook, solicitor for Lewistown, Burnham and Derry, asked Hanger whether the DEP would be flexible on some of its requirements to allow involved municipalities more ease in forming a regional authority.
"There is a general consensus that a regional authority is a good thing, but what flexibility is there, if any, for the involved municipalities ... there has been an H20 grant submitted right now by Lewistown, can that be (transferred) to a regional authority?" Snook questioned.
Hanger said DEP would probably be able to give the municipalities an extension on meeting DEP requirements for their sewage facilities.
"If it is a scheduling issue - we can work with you," Hanger said. " I don't believe the additional time you need is a show stopper. I think it would be an easy thing to make happen."
Hanger added that he did not know if the H20 grant Lewistown applied for could be converted to include other municipalities under a regional authority.
"I personally believe the Commonwealth Financial Authority also supports regional projects and would be willing to work with you," Hanger said.
At a prior meeting, the Lewistown Borough Council opted to apply for H20 funding to upgrade its own facilities while simultaneously continue informal discussions of creating a regional authority with the other three municipalities.
Ron Jager, of Gannett-Flemming who works with Lewistown Borough on various engineering projects, asked how forming a regional authority would affect those municipalities, like Lewistown Borough, that joined the lawsuit against the DEP over the total maximum daily load requirements of the Chesapeake Bay Tributary Strategy, which was designed to bring the state into compliance with a federal mandate regarding pollution reductions in the Chesapeake Bay.
"Every decision is subject to appeal - what I would tell you is we would defend our permit very strongly ... there is a very good reason why not to challenge the permit," Hanger said. "What you are talking about doing, a regional project, would benefit the (Chesapeake) Bay."
About 70 municipalities, including several in Mifflin and Juniata counties, have joined in the suit, which alleges DEP is in "violation of the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions" by denying the petitioners due process of law. Limits on municipal treatment plants have been a source of contention among the municipalities that operate the plants because of the costs estimated in upgrading the plants to meet the strategy's requirements.
The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that a Pennsylvania appellate court refused to throw out the lawsuit in a 5-2 decision. The court's majority opinion said more study was necessary to determine whether the state's cleanup strategy acts as a regulation, which has the force of law. State officials said the strategy is a policy and doesn't need to undergo the lengthy approval process necessary to finalize a regulation.
"I really respect what you all are doing - it is an important decision - we at DEP certainly want to work with you," Hanger said.