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Editorial: Sewer-system repairs can't be avoided much longer

Jan. 28, 2013 @ 11:44 PM

Some staggering numbers have been bandied about in recent years regarding what it would take to bring Huntington's sewer system up to snuff to meet federal requirements, some as high as $785 million.

The reasons are rather simple. Most of Huntington's sewer lines are a century old or more and most carry both storm water and sewage, which leads to flooding problems, sewage backups and places an extra burden on the treatment plant. Huntington and dozens of other cities across the country have faced pressure from federal environmental authorities to make improvements.

To-date, the city has made little progress in addressing the larger issues, what with tight budgets and little desire to raise sewer rates significantly to help pay for the repairs. But that may have to change, based on what officials and a consultant with the Huntington Sanitary Board spelled out last week.

While they weren't calling for an immediate plan to pay for all the sewer system's needs, they did urge the three-member Sanitary Board to prepare for a way to make up to $50 million in repairs that they described as critical -- and to raise sewer rates to help pay for the work.

One of their immediate concerns is the city's main treatment plant, which was built in the city's Westmoreland neighborhood in 1964 and bolstered by a secondary treatment plant built in 1984. But very little has been done since that time to upgrade the plant and the main lines feeding into it and out of it, to the point that the Sanitary Board's consultant considers it to be in the worst condition of any he's seen within the region. One of the contributing problems is that no bypass system exists to take the plant off-line in order to make major repairs.

Another immediate concern is a pumping station along the floodwall at 13th Street West. Most of its components also are about 50 years old. About 80 percent of the city's sewage travels through it. It too needs a bypass system constructed so repairs can be made.

Paying for at least some of the repairs deemed most crucial is the big question. The Sanitary Board has identified the possibility of an $11.5 million low-interest loan through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. It would pay for replacing the 13th Street West pumping station as well as the main trunk lines at the treatment plant. The loan, however, is contingent upon the city identifying a dedicated funding source to repay the debt.

That's where a possible increase in city sewer rates comes into play. After the last rate increase of 23 percent approved in 2009, the city's residential customers pay an average of about $21 a month. Sanitary Board Executive Director Kit Anderson told the Sanitary Board that repaying the $11.5 million funding package would require a 20 percent rate increase, raising the average monthly bill to $25.

The City Council must decide on any sewer rate increases, and hiking the charges has usually been met with resistance. That's one reason why the city's sewer charges are among the lowest in the state, at little more than half what is charged customers in Charleston, Beckley and Parkersburg. But those low rates also may speak to why the city's treatment facilities are in such poor condition.

As the phrase goes, "you get what you pay for," and little has been paid to keep the city's sewer system in good condition. The time appears to have come when residents should pay a little more for a system they all depend on. And it makes more sense to have an orderly repair plan rather than paying the undoubtedly higher cost of doing repairs under emergency circumstances.

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