The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have announced an $864,000 settlement agreement with the Berkeley County Public Service Sewer District (PSSD). With ongoing environmental projects offsetting the total, the settlement amounts to roughly $500,000.
“After years of continually modernizing the county’s sewage system, ensuring our communities have clean water and working to exceed regulatory standards, we’re relieved to finally reach this settlement,” PSSD General Manager Curtis Keller said. “We can now tighten our focus even more on refining our sewer system, investing in long-term solutions and making Berkeley County an even safer and cleaner place to live and work.”
The district was formed more than 40 years ago, and it has taken over several plants during that time with the majority of them being in the past 20 years. Its goal was to provide the best quality sewage service possible.
“In some cases, plants were dumping raw sewage and collection systems were overflowing as the county experienced tremendous growth,” Keller said. “We’ve continually moved away from that reality. The system is unquestionably better today. We’re proud of that.”
Over two decades, the PSSD — the state’s largest sewage district — has invested $150 million in the sewage system. “We’ve made the system smarter, more efficient, safer and cleaner,” Keller said. “Our growing region has benefitted tremendously from that investment.”
Today, the PSSD’s performance compares well with sewer districts around the country. Its compliance rate now exceeds the national average.
But, in 2011, the Opequon/Hedgesville Wastewater Treatment Plant was failing because the firm that designed the plant did not build properly for daily capacity. The plant was violating ammonia nitrogen limits because it couldn’t handle demand. Those violations resulted in multiple West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lawsuits.
After winning a lawsuit against the plant’s designer, the PSSD received $3 million in settlement money to reinvest in the plant. Needed repairs greatly exceeded $3 million, but violations continually decreased. By 2018, the PSSD had reached compliance. Still, along the way, the DEP and EPA opted to file the lawsuit that led to the current DOJ settlement.
“Ironically, we were working to make sure improvements would be in line with regulations and technology,” Keller said. “We were continuously improving, but these legal battles slowed the pace.”
The 2018 lawsuit was based on 2013 realities, Keller explained. The PSSD had by 2018 invested more than $70 million in four major plants and responded to many of the issues outlined in 2013.
The PSSD, meanwhile, worked with the State Legislature to pass a bill that provided funding for Chesapeake Bay obligations. That bill funded projects, with most of the money invested in the Eastern Panhandle. With $13 million in grant dollars, the district saw a total of $100 million distributed to facilities in Chesapeake Bay watershed.
“The EPA and Department of Justice have acknowledged our good work,” Keller said. “If you look at our improvements over two decades, there’s no question we’re in a much better place.”
The litigation has spotlighted a need for software improvements for the PSSD system. Otherwise, all other improvements associated with the settlement were part of PSSD plans regardless.
“Our mission is to protect public health, prevent pollution and support community and economic development providing wastewater collection treatment,” Keller said. “In short, we work to protect Berkeley County’s communities and citizens. That’s our priority each and every day, and it will continue to be as we move forward.”