By Tina Alvey
Keeping a wary eye on water-related legislation now under consideration in Charleston, city officials are concerned that SB373, if approved in its present form, could more than double the cost of a new water treatment plant Lewisburg has on the drawing board.
That bill, as it now stands, requires each water system in the state to either have two separate sources on tap or to store a three- to five-day supply of “raw water” — untreated water.
Ken Chambers, an engineer with Chapman Technical Group, told city council Tuesday that, for Lewisburg’s regional system to store even three days of the Greenbrier River in raw form, the city would have to build and maintain storage tanks sufficient to hold 18 million gallons of water. He said that would double the cost of the current water plant upgrade, which is already in the $30 million range.
“We’d need (to build) a pond,” Lewisburg Public Works director Mark Carver scoffed.
Mayor John Manchester said he had spent several days in Charleston “educating” legislators and other state officials about the downside of the storage requirement for smaller systems like Lewisburg’s. He said he hopes if and when the legislation is adopted it at least sets different requirements for small systems.
He said the impetus behind the bill, which is still being fine-tuned in committee, is last month’s toxic chemical spill into the Elk River, which tainted the water supply for 300,000 people in a nine-county area, including Kanawha. The fact that the West Virginia American Water Co. had only a single source of water for its massive regional plant was the “driving force” behind SB373, Manchester said.
Carver offered a dire warning if the clean water legislation is adopted without the changes the mayor described. “It would kill a lot of small operating systems in the state,” Carver said.
According to Chambers, the plans for Lewisburg’s upgraded water plant are “90 percent complete” in regard to water treatment, storage and distribution. He said the project should be ready to submit to the state’s Infrastructure Council by May 10, by which time the city will need to have appointed a project administrator, accountant and bond counsel.
Chambers also said the state Public Service Commission’s (PSC) staff has already shown support for the plant’s upgrade. PSC representatives were in Greenbrier County a couple of weeks ago, he said, and saw for themselves the problems that prompted the proposed upgrade.
The new plant is expected to sport more efficient equipment, allowing operating hours to drop below the present unsustainable level, which is now nearing 24 hours a day. Also, following a finding by state inspectors that the Greenbrier County Landfill had allowed runoff to pollute the Greenbrier River last fall, city officials decided to include in the project the relocation of the system’s intake from its current position in the river below the landfill to a point above it.
The Lewisburg water system has a customer base of around 5,000 businesses and residences, according to Manchester. The total number of people represented by that figure is about 10,000, he said.
Lewisburg has provided water to Ronceverte since September 2009 when, burdened by regulatory pressures, the River City made the decision to close its 85-year-old water plant and hook onto Lewisburg’s regional system, which also serves Fairlea and other surrounding communities.
Following an unusual freeze and thaw cycle affecting the Greenbrier River, Lewisburg shut off the water flow to Ronceverte for a span of time earlier this month, a disruption Lewisburg officials said was both brief and unavoidable.
Ronceverte officials took exception with Lewisburg’s explanation, however, and called in the PSC for the above-mentioned consultation that took place two weeks ago.
Delivering a report on behalf of Lewisburg’s Public Works Committee during Tuesday’s council meeting, Carver said Ronceverte’s water supply was shut off for only “a few hours one night.” Other than those few hours, he said, Lewisburg has continued to send the usual amount of 13,500 gallons an hour to Ronceverte.
In a later telephone interview with The Register-Herald, Ronceverte Mayor David Smith disputed Carver’s account, saying, “They cut us off, and then they cut us back. We were on reduced flow.”
Smith also responded to earlier media reports that suggested unresolved leaks in Ronceverte’s old pipes were to blame for Lewisburg’s apparent inability to provide sufficient water for his city without shorting the nearby hospital’s supply.
“For a month our guys had been trying to help (Lewisburg) find leaks,” Smith said.
He also took issue with Carver’s implication that the PSC representatives who visited at Ronceverte’s behest pointed out problems with an altitude valve in a Ronceverte tank that had experienced a 20-foot drop in water levels in a single night.
“Our guys took care of that problem two or three months ago,” Smith said. “The PSC had nothing to do with it. They sure didn’t talk to us about it.”
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