Monday, August 23, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

All good things must come to an end, and summer is no exception. As much as I enjoy the kids being home and all of us having a few less things on the ‘to do’ list (not to mention nagging about homework, which we can all do without) I do appreciate when it’s time for them to go back, if for no other reason than I get to reclaim my house from all the teenagers running in and out, and it stays clean longer. 

Methacton’s doors reopen on September 7 – but for how long? The number one question I’ve been hearing in recent weeks is not IF we’re going to have to deal with a strike, but when, and for how long? Already many of the kids are eagerly looking forward to a little extended time off.

An update posted at the end of July on the school district website explains where the school district believes the process is at the moment and the timeline of events in play going forward. If both parties go through the steps in the maximum time allotted for each, MEA, if no progress is made and they so choose, could potentially go on strike approximately September 22, but I think it’s safe to say anything after mid-September is a real possibility.

If they do, collective bargaining law (Act 1992-88) dictates that a first strike must end if 180 days of school cannot be completed by June 15, or the last day of school as designated on the instructional calendar, whichever is later. Following the first teacher strike, the Board and MEA would be required to submit to mandatory nonbinding arbitration. Following the mandatory non-binding arbitration process, which could take place over as little as 65 calendar days but usually lasts much longer (and during which the public gets ten days to comment on the ‘final best’ contract offers) a second strike could occur. The second strike must end when 180 days of school cannot be completed by June 30.

Attempts to contact Methacton Education Association president Diana Kernop for a status update or comment on their position were not returned.

The next Methacton School Board meeting is scheduled for tomorrow night, August 24 at 8 pm in the Arcola auditorium. As I’m sure the subject will come up, you might want to attend to get the most recent information or to ask questions.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Over The River and Through the Woods, To The Interceptor Project We Go

Unless you live along riverfront property, you may not have heard much, if anything, about something called the ‘Interceptor’. No, we’re not outfitting our police department with the snazzy new 2012 souped-up Ford Crown Vic street-legal hotrod of the same name (that I know of, anyway). This is something a little less glamorous.

Bottom line, it’s a sewer project. A complex, multi-municipal, three-part sewer project, and the third and final phase of the project is what has Lower Providence in a twist. Even though it's been in the works for almost ten years, and two of the three sections are either done or underway now, neighbors near the planned  'middle' portion just recently started showing up and protesting it, even though a number of them had been asked to sign releases for easements to facilitate construction some time ago, and many had already executed them. Why are they protesting now?

To make a fair assessment, I like to hear both sides of an issue and to date, the Lower Perkiomen Valley Regional Sewer Authority (LPVRSA) has been virtually silent in the press as to why they’ve chosen to complete this project in the way it's proposed. My understanding is that they don't intend to stay that way. I was able to get them to sit down and talk with me recently so I could try to understand and convey their position.

Begun almost ten years ago in 2001, LPVRSA, which comprises Lower Providence, Upper Providence, Skippack and Perkiomen Townships and the boroughs of Collegeville and Trappe, began plans to build a second sewer line (interceptor) in order to meet anticipated increases in the need for sewer capacity among the LPVRSA’s member communities. Increased need was attributed to known or expected growth in commercial and residential development, and expansions such as the prison in Eagleville, among the member communities.

The project, comprising three parts or segments (Upper, Lower and Middle) has moved along fairly quietly since 2001. The lower section has already been built, and the upper portion is being constructed now. That’s what all those pipes and excavation equipment that recently appeared at the Collegeville Inn’s parking lot are for – the section that runs from above Graterford down to the Collegeville Inn.

The middle and final section connecting the whole thing together – from the Collegeville Inn to the Arcola Road area near the former Proffit home (which LPVRSA now owns) - has been planned from the beginning. It’s going through the permitting process now, with construction expected to begin in 2013. Although our Township, across a couple of administrations, surely has known about this section and how it will run right through a portion of the riverbanks on the Lower Providence side (even though the existing section is on the Upper Providence side), there was never any fuss made about it until after the election last fall.

While affected residents now claim nobody told them that this project was coming, LPVRSA counters that all plans have been advertised over the years and there have been ample opportunities for public participation up to this point, from the time it was proposed right up through the permitting process, some of which is still underway. In 2005 property owners were notified about the impending archeological and engineering studies to be done in conjunction with permitting, and notified again in 2008 when application was being made for $16 million in H2O PA grant funding ($2.5 million of which was awarded and used toward construction costs on the upper portion of the project). I'm told occasionally someone would call and ask a few questions, but other than that, there was no public opposition to the project.

Originally, the plan was to build the new middle interceptor section alongside the existing aging interceptor pipes, which is located on the Upper Providence side of the river. However, according to LPVRSA, the notices the residents received as early as 2005 noted that the new interceptor might not be placed on the same side of the river as the existing one (translation: it might wind up on the LP side).

Starting in 2004, easements were obtained from adjacent residents for both the upper and lower portions via Declarations of Taking. In 2009 a different approach was taken in that LPVRSA decided to negotiate with property owners for easements to construct the middle portion. Certainly this could account for some recent opposition.

Also late last year, residents started showing up at township Board of Supervisors meetings and asking for help in fighting the project. They asked for alternatives; however, alternatives were looked at in 2003-2004 at Lower Providence's request. For various reasons – cost, practicality, physical limitations - all were rejected at that time.

For example, the residents say one alternative could be to place a pumping station on the Wyeth/Pfizer property in Upper Providence, instead of the middle interceptor, but there’s one small problem with that option – you don’t really need to pump water downhill. Gravity takes care of that nicely, for free. Earlier this year, Lower Providence again requested LPVRSA conduct another study to provide alternatives to the existing plan, and LPVRSA again complied. This second study, which was done at a cost of approximately $7500, was paid for by LPVRSA and  delivered to the Township August 2 for review and comment.

Among the five options looked at were the placement of a pumping station at 1st Avenue in Collegeville, a pump station at Yerkes Road in Upper Providence, a pumping station at Wyeth/Pfizer in Upper Providence, placing the interceptor along the trail on the Upper Providence side of the river, and the current plan to place the parallel middle interceptor on the Lower Providence side. An  open records request for a copy of the 2010 alternative study reveals that placement on the Lower Providence side is significantly less expensive than the other four options, with a minimum cost of $17.3 million and maximum of $19.3 million. The next least costly option was the Yerkes Road pump station, at an estimated minimum cost of $25 million and maximum of $28.9 million.

While you might say 'what's spending a little more money if it saves natural beauty and resources', the LPVRSA's first responsibility (as with any public utility) is to its ratepayers, and ratepayers want low cost. The first half of their mission statement is 'to anticipate the needs of the communities served and expand treament facilities when feasible; and ' to provide the best service to those municipalities and/or municipal authorities while maintaining the lowest possible rates through sound management, financial, and engineering practices".

LPVRSA maintains they determined that installing the new interceptor next to the existing one on the Upper Providence side isn't viable, partly because there isn’t enough room to put a new pipe in the same trench - the width of the right-of-way is simply not wide enough - and partly due to the steep slopes along that side of the river. To attempt to co-locate the pipes would require extensive excavation, disruption of the Perkiomen Trail,  incurring additional costs to purchase additional land, pay for the additional construction expenses (including the extensive excavation), and result in additional maintenance expenses.

It would also require construction of a permanent wall and a bypass wastewater pump during construction for 4-6 months, with 'significant risks' of a pump station outage during that time, resulting in a 'pollution event'.  Putting the middle portion on Lower Providence's side of the river was viewed by LPVRSA to be the least intrusive in terms of pollution and ecological disturbance, as well as being the most cost-effective for the ratepayers (that's any of us who connect to the public sewer system).

Lower Providence officials feel that the majority of the extra capacity that will be added will primarily benefit the other member communities. Lower Providence is largely built out, and with the economy putting most new commercial and residential construction at a standstill (and, frankly, a BOS that arguably seems to discourage any new development at all), that’s probably a reasonable viewpoint. LPVRSA admits that as things stand today, that is true. However, it won’t stay that way forever. Additional capacity will eventually be needed by Lower Providence, too, especially once the new prison addition comes online. Lower Providence officials dispute that, but it stands to reason that if you add more facilities and increase the population, the usage will rise. I have to believe that the opening of Skyview next to Arcola Middle School will also increase our usage.

In any event, the entire system needed to be upgraded to eliminate known weaknesses in the existing 40-year old system resulting in 'inflow and infiltration" - stream water leaking into, and sewage leaking out of, the existing interceptor pipes - so in that respect, it does benefit Lower Providence now, if for no other reason than to maintain the safety and low pollution levels of the river.

Naturally, the residents are upset that this work will disturb the natural beauty, animals, resources, vegetation and recreation in the area. Also, there is the possibility that there are archaeological finds that could be disturbed. LPVRSA says a review of digging in and disturbing such areas is a part of the permitting and review processes and is done in conjunction with the rest of the application. If there is any reason found by DEP not to continue with the project for archeological reasons, it will surface at that point in the process.

Now, I've spent some time with some of the residents who are fighting the interceptor along the creek, and they seem like sincere, nice folks. I sure wouldn’t want this in my backyard either, and they are doing what they feel they must. No matter what side of the river it ends up on, it's going to involve a certain amount of noise and disruption. It does seem strange that there is such  angst about it now, years after notice has been given, easements signed away, and the project has been under way for some time - after many of them already signed off on it.

For now, the pressure is off the Township and its residents. A technical mistake on the regional Act 537 plan LPVRSA submitted to the Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) - an aggregate of all the member communities' 537 plans, put into one plan at DEP's request - appears to LPVRSA to have been blown up into more than it really is – some say by Lower Providence officials – and has held up the issue of the permit for this section. While LPVRSA intends to file a corrected plan/application, the project can’t move forward until that’s resolved. Lower Providence's Board of Supervisors is doing its best to listen to the affected residents and advocate on their behalf, but at the end of the day there isn't a lot that is ultimately within the BOS' control.

In the meantime, I've learned, and sources have confirmed, that LPVRSA has filed a Right To Know request with Lower Providence for records which would presumably illuminate to what extent, if any, Lower Providence officials have stirred up resistance to undermine the long-established plans at the eleventh hour. Lower Providence Township has filed a reciprocal request for LPVRSA's records seeking documents pertaining to the development and analysis of the options, and how and why the option selected and submitted to DEP for review and approval was determined.

At the July LPVRSA meeting it was revealed that there had been recent, significant vandalism discovered at one of the meter pits located in Collegeville. Due to the nature of the damage and specific equipment required to produce it, it was felt that it was not random or committed by kids, but rather done by 'people who knew what they were doing'. A report was filed with the police and with Dept. of Homeland Security. Hopefully, it is unrelated to this controversy.

Where’s Rep. Mike Vereb when you need him? Now that he’s fresh off his success working out a compromise for Norristown School District and their stadium, perhaps he can work his magic here before it escalates any further. And I'm sure Sen. John Rafferty could be of help as well.  I think both sides have valid points and are willing to listen, and my hope is that they will be able to work together to mitigate the concerns of all parties without escalating it into yet another expensive legal battle. It's a classic case of 'the needs of the few versus the needs of the many".