Jeremiah Johnson and Luke Richmond seem unfazed by the massive challenge that has been handed to the Beckley Sanitary Board.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that few people in the community understand what they are trying to do.

Johnson, operations manager for the board, and Richmond are working to establish the new Beckley Storm Water Utility to reverse the effects of a half-century of neglect of the city’s storm water infrastructure, and to deal with the pollution Beckley’s storm water creates in local streams — all of which are considered impaired by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Storm water drags mud and sediment from construction sites, lawns, businesses and parking lots into local streams. The sediment often contains oil, pesticides, toxins and a variety of other pollutants that cause health and environmental hazards.

The problem is compounded by inadequate, broken or clogged city drainage systems that cause flooding and contribute to stream contamination.

Johnson and Richmond, the board’s general manager, have met with government agencies and citizen groups to educate them on the complex mission of the new utility.

The men enter these meetings armed with slide shows that depict crumbling drainage pipes, submerged highways and red acid mine runoff leaking into Cranberry Creek.

Johnson has a large map of Beckley and the surrounding area, on which known storm water problems are depicted with small black dots.

The dots are everywhere — making the map look as if it has sustained several shotgun blasts.

“And those are just the problems we know about,” said Johnson, indicating that much is still unknown about the city’s crumbling storm water infrastructure and sources of groundwater pollution.

To begin dealing with these problems, Beckley Common Council approved the Beckley Storm Water Utility on June 26, placing the utility under the control of the Beckley Sanitary Board.

Now, the sanitary board has the daunting task of starting up the new utility.

About 10,000 local residents and businesses will receive bills in the mail next month from the Beckley Storm Water Utility. The money will be used to fund the new utility’s efforts to reduce pollution in streams, prevent flooding, and repair the area’s old and defunct storm water infrastructure.

Owners of residential parcels will be charged a flat fee of $3.75 per month for an annual fee of $45. Owners of nonresidential parcels will pay a flat fee of $10 per month or $120 per year until July 1, 2008.

After July 1, 2008, all nonresidential parcel owners will pay a fee based on total square footage of impervious space, such as roofs and parking lots. The rate will be $1.25 per 1,000 square feet of impervious surface.

These rates were recommended by the Storm Water Action Committee, which met six times to provide guidance to the sanitary board on how to deal with the city’s storm water issues.

Johnson and Richmond are concerned that many who get the bill will not understand what it is for, or why it is necessary.

“The number of storm water complaints goes up every year,” Johnson said. “There are a number of issues out there that aren’t being dealt with. We need a funding source to deal with these problems.”

Johnson explained the new utility is necessary if Beckley is to comply with federal environmental protection regulations.

“There are 400 other storm water utilities in America, and that number will climb to 1,000,” Johnson said. “Beckley is not unique. It (the storm water utility) is becoming the national model for how to comply with federal regulations.”

The federal government mandated that Beckley and dozens of other cities in West Virginia develop a system to deal with the pollution the city’s storm water runoff creates in streams and rivers. However, the feds did not provide the funding to pay for the system.

Meanwhile, federal officials can blast local governments with heavy fines for noncompliance. Penalties can reach up to $34,500 per day.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency have told Johnson that they may conduct an audit of Beckley’s storm water systems as early as next year.

Meanwhile all streams in the Beckley watershed have failed recent DEP cleanliness tests, including Piney, Whitestick, Cranberry and Little Whitestick creeks.

The state Park Service has placed signs at various stream locations such as the one at the mouth of Piney Creek which says, “This tributary is likely to contain high levels of sewage bacteria.”

Cleaning up the city’s storm water runoff will provide a variety of benefits, including improved public health, said Johnson.

But such a complex set of problems will not be solved overnight.

“We can’t start up and immediately solve everything out there,” said Johnson. “We have to keep our rate payers happy, but we have to comply with federal regulations, and have to resolve some flood issues.”

For more information, contact the sanitary board at 256-1760.

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