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A Battle Won, But the War Rages On
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by Tom Shipley | 2008

Does a BAD idea ever go away? An update of the Slatyfork Sewage Treatment plant issue.

The historic Sharp farm in Pocahontas County, West Virginia has been saved thanks, in part, to the efforts of the Sierra Club and the Highlands Conservancy. Glorious springs, caves and trout streams, early 1800’s log home, early 1900’s farmhouse, country store, pioneer cemetery….all saved!

Three years ago, the Sierra Club was the first organization to express an interest in a curious sewer project that proposed to take my family’s farm via Eminent Domain to allow the Snowshoe Mountain Ski Resort, some miles away, to transfer millions of gallons a day of their sewage ‘downstream’ into this bucolic valley. The $20 million project, billed as ‘regional’ and financed with taxpayer dollars, added less than 40 new customers to the 1800+ already being provided service, mostly by the utility owned and operated by Snowshoe.

Since those early days we were told that we poor folk in the valley would never get sewerage because the second home buyers from out of state raised our median income to a level that disqualified us from 100% free (not to be paid back) grants. The only way to help us was to expand the Public Service District (previously only responsible for public water in the tiny, far away town of Durbin…now they are in charge of a multi-million dollar sewer project) to incorporate the resort so that we would have enough customers to pay off the loans required to get service into the valley.

Only recently, through the Freedom of Information Act, were documents obtained that painted a clearer picture. Inter-office memos and e-mails reveal that Snowshoe Resort told the DEP they wanted “out of the sewer business” and as early as June 5, 2003, Mike Johnson of the DEP remarks, “Some things have changed. Snowshoe wants out of the sewer business and wants Thrasher (Engineering) to include the elimination of the Silver Creek WWTP in their report. The flow will be pumped into the regional system. He said Snowshoe also wants the PSD to take over their collection system….in other words everything…they want out of the business.”

Then, Allyn Turner, head of the DEP department in charge of this project replies, “One issue with Silver Creek in an intra-basin transfer. Do we need to  speak now on that – alert Snowshoe and Thrasher that including Silver Creek could create permit and water quantity issues?”

So, it seems the $20 million project may not have been to help out us poor folk in the valley after all. In fact, the Snowshoe demands increased the project cost that initially was to require only $7.5 million. Also, this intra-basin transfer is troubling. Almost the entire project requires water from a completely different watershed (Shavers Fork) to be flushed down the wrong side of the mountain into the Elk River watershed…thus the caution by Ms. Turner. Indeed, Ms. Turner, then head of the DEP’s Water and Wastewater Division, sued Snowshoe Water and Sewer, Inc. for gross violations of their NPDES discharge permits. Ms. Turner was fired by the new, incoming Cabinet Secretary of the DEP, Stephanie Timmermeyer. This was Ms. Timmermeyer’s first official act as Secretary of the DEP. Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette reported that he received no response from his inquiry about this action from the DEP.

This lawsuit lay dormant for several years in Circuit Court until just recently, when the judge approved a Consent Decree settlement between the resort and the DEP. This settlement lessened the effluent limits to, according the attorney for Snowshoe, “what was actually flowing out of the pipes”. Additionally, the language proposes that Snowshoe pay its almost $3 million fine with a Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) that suggests Snowshoe donate their failing infrastructure and equipment to the regional project and transfer their utility to the county. The judge remarked that he did not know what those figures meant, but since no council appeared to contest the issue of the revised NPDES discharge limits and since this was an issue of water quality, he approved the Consent Decree.

Since 2003, we have learned quite a bit about geology, hydrology, waste treatment, politics and so on. A major factor in heightening the concern of those affected, beyond the issue of Eminent Domain, is the karst. Karst is limestone that breaks down over time to create underground river systems, caves, springs and sinkholes. The proposed project requires millions of gallons a day of raw sewage to be pumped up, over and down Cheat Mountain through this fragile karst ecosystem. One pipe joint break or pump failure would mean immediate inundation of raw sewage into the underground aquifers due to their close proximity and relationship to the karst….all of this risk to serve the less than 40 extra customers in the valley.

On March 4, 2008, the County Commission voted, unanimously, on a resolution and directed the PSD that the use of Eminent Domain on the Sharp farm was prohibited. Indeed, a joyous occasion.  Three years of financial and emotional strain were over! The heavens above put an exclamation mark on that decision, ironically, for later that afternoon the rains came and the Big Spring Fork flowed right through the very spot they had proposed to build the plant. It would have been an ecological nightmare had they earlier succeeded in taking the Sharp farm property.

A major battle won, we were exuberant.  This weight lifted from our shoulders was short lived, however, when we learned that the resort had purchased land just up the road and right along the highway at Split Rock. Yes, that’s right, Split Rock….named for a prominent karst feature right smack dab in the middle of the river. Here is one of the many places the Big Spring Fork disappears and resurges, ever forming new and unknown pathways beneath the surface.

Spilt Rock is to be one of three newly considered sites. Sadly, one of the other sites is at the confluence of Big Spring Fork and Old Field Fork just next to our farm. This is the beginning of the Elk River and is the home to a blue-ribbon trout fishery, one of the east coast’s finest! It is also, completely in the 100-year flood zone.

The third site is at the base of Cheat Mountain on the resort property. It may be off the karst, but it still requires the huge volumes of water to be siphoned from Shavers Fork into the Elk watershed. . It seems the lessons that three years of expert analysis, study and community concern were not ‘learned’.

The Elk Headwaters Watershed Association (EHWA) approached the County Commission with two requests recently. One, that the Commission require their Public Service District board to consider a fourth alternative…to retrofit the existing treatment plant on the resort mountain with state of the art membrane technology, allowing them to return the much more cleanly treated water and recharge the Shavers Fork watershed.

Additionally the EHWA asked the Commission’s endorsement for a Comprehensive Watershed Plan process that would allow us to study the watershed, bring engineers in to design solutions for the actual needs based on scientific fact, then allow all the stakeholders in the community in on deciding our county’s future.

Several meetings since rallied the community with packed houses, expressing much disapproval with the new sites and the proposed project. Almost unanimous support for the CWP and a true regional solution resulted but the officials are going full steam ahead despite the wishes of the community.

The County Commission passed a unanimous letter calling for a “halt to all pending litigation, court and administrative proceedings pending a full and robust community discussion to formulate a cooperative and comprehensive plan for the Elk River Watershed and its environs.”

Sadly, the resort, the Public Service District, Public Service Commission and the DEP continue on completely ignoring the Commission letter. The war rages on….

With gratitude,

Tom Shipley
Slatyfork, West Virginia

PS: Eight Rivers Safe Development filed a lawsuit against the WVDEP’s issuance of a FONSI (Finding of no significant impact) for this project vs. requiring an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement). You can follow their efforts at http://www.8riverssafedevelopment.com. There were many meetings and hearings that Sierra Club executive officers traveled long distances to attend, sacrificing their valuable time to stand with my family and many other concerned groups at public hearings. There may be more required in this regard. We are so very grateful.

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