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House GOP leaders pledge support for bay cleanup: Impact to be felt in Augusta

The Top Story by Chris Graham


Ken Fanfoni’s eyes are locked on the date … 2010.

It’s not a space odyssey that the Augusta County Service Authority executive director has in mind, but rather a bay odyssey.

Service-authority customers in Augusta are on the hook for $25 million in improvements to eight wastewater-treatment plants so that the county can reduce the level of nutrients that it discharges into the Chesapeake Bay by a 2010 state-imposed deadline.

That’s $25 million that, right now, is supposed to come out of the monthly bills of Augusta County residents – the majority of whom live closer to Gettysburg, Pa., and Greensboro, N.C., than they do the Chesapeake Bay, for those keeping score at home.

A year ago, the county service authority approved a period of phased-in rate increases for its customers over the course of the next several years to provide the working capital that it will need to meet the new state requirements.

“We didn’t want to wait until it got to the point where we had to do something drastic all at once,” Fanfoni told The Augusta Free Press.

“The decision was made to do something more gradual that we could look at again if the state were to decide to do something a year or two down the road,” Fanfoni said.


Lucky break?


Republican Party leaders in the House of Delegates aren’t interested in waiting a year or two to do something about earmarking state dollars to the wastewater-treatment-plant upgrade problem.

Speaker Bill Howell said Monday that the House GOP will support a $500 million commitment to the state water-quality improvement fund over the next 10 years that would provide monies to localities whose treatment plants are in need of upgrades to meet the 2010 clean-up-the-bay deadline.

“We hold the resources of our Commonwealth in stewardship. Fortunately, Virginia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, including the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Today, we are announcing the largest commitment of new funds this decade to clean up the bay and improve Virginia’s waters,” said Howell, R-Stafford.

“Economic prosperity is essential to environmental progress,” Howell said. “By dedicating $500 million over the next 10 years to this far-reaching initiative, we are taking a dramatic step forward to reduce the amount of pollution that is released into streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.

“Improving the quality of our lakes, streams, rivers and the bay isn’t a luxury; it is our duty as responsible stewards. Our heritage from the past must be our legacy to generations to come,” Howell said.


Warner weighs in


Gov. Mark Warner indicated Monday that he would support dedicating to the Chesapeake Bay clean-up effort a significant portion of the additional revenues that the state is now expecting will come from the revenue reforecast.

“The best guess right now is that we’ll see an additional $230 million to $290 million in this two-year budget,” said Warner’s spokesperson, Ellen Qualls.

“Ongoing state support for bay initiatives is crucial, but can’t be promised without a new dedicated revenue source,” Qualls told the AFP. “The governor is not proposing such a source, but would support making the bay a general-fund priority as funds allow in the future, without cutting into education and other core services.

“He regards the bay as a pay me now or pay me later proposition, because the federal government will eventually force cleaner systems, and the costs will eventually be passed on to Virginians,” Qualls said.


Will it be enough?


The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has estimated the cost of upgrades to the 122 wastewater-treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in the Old Dominion to be in the area of $1.2 billion. And that’s not accounting for the cost inflation that Fanfoni fears will result from having all of the upgrade projects going live essentially at once.

“Something that is going to complicate this is that between Maryland and Virginia, you’re talking about 200 or so treatment plants that are all going to be upgraded at basically the same time,” Fanfoni said. “That’s 200 projects going out to bid at the same time. Now, what happens when you have a bunch of projects going out to bid at the same time? What happens when the construction market is oversaturated? The price goes up.

“How many engineering firms are there out there to accommodate the demand? How much construction firms are out there? There are issues with the availability of steel and concrete. I’ve seen the $1.2 billion number that they’re throwing out there. It’s a construction estimate. That’s how much it should cost. But these are far from ideal conditions. We’re throwing around the $20 million to $25 million number. It’s likely going to cost a lot more than that,” Fanfoni said.

“This is a point that we’re trying to make to the state. This is going to have a domino effect on the costs of this work. We bring these issues up over and over again with the DEQ, but they don’t seem to go anywhere,” Fanfoni said.

Alan Pollock, the manager of the DEQ’s water-quality program, said the department has taken note of the concerns expressed by Fanfoni and others related to cost.

“We’ve been talking with public and private treatment-plant operators about the implementation, and we’re aware of the issues related to concerns about the cost of construction,” Pollock told the AFP. “We’re also aware of the constraints that we have as far as the agreement that is in place and the involvement of the federal government and the courts. We’re sensitive to all of these issues.

“We all want to reduce the level of pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay, and we all want to see that it is done in the most cost-effective means possible. We don’t want to see local customers’ bills go up,” Pollock said.


(Published 02-01-05)