July 29, 2008

Sewer Plans Once Again Threaten Elk

By John McCoy

If you tilt your head toward Pocahontas County and listen closely, you can hear the Elk River's nationally famous trout fishing being flushed down 1,950 toilets.

The final gurgle at the bottom of the bowl hasn't yet been heard, but a hand is on the lever and is starting to exert pressure. The hand belongs to Scott Milliken, a commissioner for the Pocahontas County Public Service District. At a July 16 meeting, Milliken shocked an audience of Snowshoe Resort landowners when he announced wholesale changes in the site and design of a proposed sewage plant for 1,950 homes along the upper Elk watershed.

Milliken told the audience that the plant would be built at Slatyfork, near the junction of the Elk's two main tributaries, Old Field Fork and Big Spring Fork. Milliken further revealed that the plant would not contain special filtering and cooling systems designed to protect trout fishing.

The announcements stunned Dave Breitmeier, a fishing guide who lives near the Elk at Valley Fork. "It was like [PSD officials] did a complete 180-degree turnabout," he said earlier this week via telephone.

At a public meeting just a few days earlier, a spokesman for Clarksburg-based Thrasher Engineering had announced that the plant would be located on Snowshoe Resort property near Cupp Run, and that the sewage would be run through a batch filtration system, a mechanical membrane bioreactor system and an effluent cooling system before being released.

"When [the engineer] told us those things, I frankly was relieved," Breitmeier said. "With that [Cupp Run] site, there's no danger of flooding and no danger that the sewage could get into the sinkholes and caves that underlie the Slatyfork area. And with that degree of treatment, the water being discharged from the plant wouldn't do any harm to trout fishing."

The most stunning aspect of the recent turnabout is that regulatory agencies can't do much about it.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which must issue the necessary permits, cannot recommend building sites or treatment specifications. They can only approve or deny an entity's permit applications.

The state Division of Natural Resources is equally powerless. DNR officials have a duty to protect the Elk's trout fishing, but they can't lift a finger until real harm is done.

"If we were to comment on [the latest PSD announcement], we wouldn't consider the Slatyfork site to be a favorable one," said DNR director Frank Jezioro. "Between the engineering, the threat of flooding, the underground voids and the warm discharge, there are too many unknowns about what might happen to the Elk's trout fishery."

Philosopher Edmund Burke once said, "All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." As things stand, DEP and DNR officials appear to be working "by the letter" while waiting for West Virginia's fickle political winds to blow.

Gov. Joe Manchin could influence those winds in a heartbeat.

To fund the $17 million Elk River project, the Pocahontas County PSD first has to get money from the state via the DEP. The DEP also controls the project's waste load allocation permit.

Gov. Manchin displayed a profound interest in the Elk's trout fishery not long ago when he arranged for Grafton Coal Co. to donate 80 acres to the DNR for a fishing access site. That donation would look pretty meaningless if an improperly sited, inadequately designed sewer plant ruined the fishery.

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