City Council wades into WTC issue

By BRIAN FERRY

bferry@timesobserver.com

At a special meeting of Warren City Council on Monday, a group of citizens expressed their frustration with the delay in resolving a zoning issue and an officer of an organization accused of making illegal discharges into the Allegheny River.

Mike Arnold, vice president of Waste Treatment Corporation (WTC), was invited to address council by council member Sam Harvey.

Clean Water Action Pa. has accused WTC of illegal discharges and said it plans to pursue legal action.

Arnold explained that his organization takes the allegations seriously. He denied that the facility accepts wastewater from Marcellus gas well drilling operations.

“They said we are continuing to take Marcellus water,” he said. “We’re not.”

“They track that water so well it’s virtually impossible to lose a gallon of it,” he said. “We don’t accept it.”

One of the alleged violations is that WTC is discharging too much radium, a radioactive element, into the river.

“We have a real sensitive radiation detection system,” he said. “We have never had a hit (on incoming water) yet.”

Clear Water Action has alleged that the radium level is “100 times over the limit,” Arnold said.

He said radium could build up in the sediment that the company ships to a landfill, but “when we take our stuff to the landfill, it’s never 100 times over.”

The number of violations quoted by Clear Water Action is artificially high, he said.

Arnold said WTC’s permit allows the company to discharge water that has a pH of between 6 and 9, with 7 being neutral.

If the system detects an improper pH level, it will stop discharging. However, if any water is discharged at that level, the company must report the violation to the state Department of Environment Protection and is issued 30 violations for that month, he said.

“I’m very familiar with DEP,” he said. “If they have a problem, they’re going to come to you. They haven’t approached us” with regard to Clean Water Action’s allegations.

Arnold said WTC plans to schedule a time for public comment. “We’re going to get with Barb Lucia (of West Side Alliance) and meet with them,” he said.

Well of contention

A group of South Side residents attended the meeting, interested in a zoning concern.

Lisa To, speaking for the group, said an oil or gas well drilled “in our residential neighborhood” four years ago, was the issue.

She said the owner of the well, Tim Koebley, does not have an active DEP permit for the well, and has been found to be in violation of city zoning.

“DEP is telling us the city has the authority to enforce its ordinances,” she said. “Why is the city choosing not to act on its zoning laws?”

Solicitor Andrea Stapleford explained that the case is in Common Pleas Court and Koebley was given 90 days to “come up with a resolution” that is acceptable to the city. That 90-day clock started ticking “about a week ago,” she said.

The city has contracted the services of special counsel in the case, according to City Manager Nancy Freenock, “to make sure we’re doing the right things.”

“We’ve given every indication that we do (intend to act on the zoning laws),” Stapleford said. “There are steps we have to go through.”

“The city has been taking the steps that we are able to take,” Mayor Mark Phillips said.

If the 90 days expires without a solution that is acceptable to the city, there will be a hearing, Stapleford said.

Koebley could appeal any court decision and there are two layers of the court system higher than the court of common pleas.

Council member John Lewis made a motion that would have had city staff “order a sealing of the well at the earliest possible time once the appeal is complete.”

That motion failed due to the lack of a second.

Phillips promised the citizens that their issue would not be forgotten and ordered that the item be placed on the agenda for each of the monthly meetings from now until the end of the year, when his term expires.

He said the group is following a good pattern by having one person speak for it and advised that community groups with common interest appoint a speaker and have that person deal with the proper person in city government.

Other business

Bids for the city’s multi-million dollar wastewater treatment plant upgrade project will be awarded at a special meeting of council on Sept. 30. The project includes the construction of a new treatment plant, drilling of new force mains, and upgrades to pump stations. Freenock said the estimated cost of the project is $25 million.

Council unanimously approved a measure required to move forward with the project. The members approved an ordinance affirming short-term, interim financing in the amount of $2.5 million. That financing was approved at the regular meeting Aug. 19.

The city will soon have a new electricity provider.

According to Public Works Director Mike Holtz, the agreement with Direct Energy Business LLC is expected to save the city about $31,000 per year or $92,000 over the course of the three-year contract.

“They’re saying this is a good time to lock in rates for the next three years,” Holtz said.

Although the agreement is for generation and supply, Holtz said the estimated savings takes into account transmission charges.