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EPA regulation may lead to water rate hike for Que customers

December 5, 2018

An Environmental Protection Agency regulation from 2014 may end up costing the Cambria Somerset Authority hundreds of thousands of dollars in permitting fees, and the authority’s customers may foot the bill.

The 2014 Clean Water Act’s 316(b) rule requires cooling water intake structure operators to limit the deaths of organisms such as fish, crabs and shrimp.

The EPA estimates this rule protects more than 200 million pounds of aquatic organisms every year, which would otherwise be trapped, pinned or killed.

“The impingement and entrainment reduction benefits range from $73 million to $83 million per year,” the EPA’s website says. “These benefits are primarily from improvements to commercial and recreational fishing. ... EPA estimates that this rule affects about 550 facilities and costs about $400 million per year.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection enforces the federal rule.

CSA board President Jim Greco said that the DEP had never enforced 316(b) upon the CSA until earlier this year.

“DEP always said the CSA doesn’t need to do that all the way back to the beginning,” he said. “We’ve gotten discharge permits and renewed them, and they said we did not fall under that regulation.”

DEP community relations coordinator Lauren Fraley said that DEP officials decided to enforce 316(b) upon the CSA in March when the CSA submitted a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit amendment.

“The majority of CSA’s 16 customers are industrial facilities like power plants that purchase cooling water,” she said in an email. “CSA does not serve potable water directly to a population for consumption. Numerous operators of cooling water intake structures across the commonwealth are being held to the same 316(b) requirements since the rule was effective in 2014.”

Greco estimated that studies that would have to be done at the Quemahoning Reservoir and Wilmore Reservoir, in Cambria County, would cost the CSA hundreds of thousands of dollars. If the reservoirs failed the studies, proper improvements would cost many hundreds of thousands more.

“This would have a major impact on our customers,” Greco said. “They’re struggling to survive at times.”

The CSA provides water to the Somerset County General Authority, which sells water to Conemaugh, Lincoln, Somerset, Jenner and Jefferson townships and Somerset Borough. Its other customers include manufacturers in Johnstown such as Johnstown Wire Technologies and local power plants.

Greco said these customers would see the negative impacts of EPA fees on the CSA.

“We’ll have to raise our rates to pay for that, or the counties will have to pay more money,” he said.

Cambria and Somerset counties each contribute about $300,000 annually to the CSA to pay its debts.

“The counties don’t have the money, our customers don’t and we don’t,” Greco said.

When the CSA attempted to raise its rates by 10 percent three years ago, its customers pleaded with the CSA to lessen the increase.

“It really could have a significant impact on our area,” he said. “Hundreds of jobs could be affected. It could be catastrophic.”

Fraley said the CSA must submit a study of the reservoirs by June 2021. Water rate increases may follow soon after.

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