HUNTINGTON, WV (WOWK)—Huntington City Council voted 9 to 2 Monday in favor of a sewer rate increase that will make way for major upgrades to the failing sewer system. While residents had mixed feelings about paying more on their bills, most agree that something has to be done to correct the chronic problems.
Wanda Staley lives on 13th Street West in Huntington. She takes pride in making her yard look nice. But several times a year sewer water turns her happy place into a nightmare.
“I mean it is dangerous, it is nasty, it’s got poop, tampons, it’s got toilet paper in it. It is nasty,” Staley said.
If you look under the surface of the road you’ll see the stormwater lines and sewer lines are combined. So when there’s too much water coming through both sewer and stormwater end up in the streets.
“Sometimes I’ve got to walk through it and when I do I go straight to the bathroom and get in the shower, I don’t want that stuff on my feet,” Staley said. She said at times she has observed feces on her vehicle after a flood.
What Staley deals with in her community and the frequent flooding in other places throughout the city are symptoms of a much bigger issue. It is a problem that has been ignored for decades.
Brian Bracey is the Executive Director of the Huntington Water Quality Board. In the past few weeks, he’s invited the media and the public to get an up-close look at the Wastewater Treatment Plant and the consequences of decades of neglect. The primary part of the facility was built in the early 1960s with another section added in the 1980s.
From the systems in place to get debris out of the water at the front end of the plant to the process of squeezing liquid out in the final step before it goes to the landfill, almost nothing works like it should and it is costing the city more money.
“The volume is more, the water weight is more, which just adds up the cost itself,” Bracey said, of the sludge that they have to pay to send to the landfill after the process is complete.
As they limp through day-to-day operations the facility can’t keep up with the workload.
“Our wastewater treatment plant should be able to handle a capacity of 13 million gallons per day,” Bracey said. “We efficiently can handle about 9 million gallons per day as long as everything is working efficiently.”
But the failures go beyond the plant itself. There are 390 miles of collection passing through 42 pump stations. In many places, the lines are combined like they are in Wanda Staley’s neighborhood. The contents are being fed through pump stations that are barely functional, like the one at 13th Street West.
“It is hard to describe to somebody when you look at a station because it is just a building, a very square brick building,” Bracey explained while giving a tour of the pump station. “This is actually 42 feet in depth, it goes pretty far down in the hole.”
The pump station at 13th Street West should have four working pumps. It is currently using just one pump even though according to Bracey it carries 80 percent of the flow of the entire city.
“Only one pump can work in this station at a time,” Bracey said. “We only have two and they cannot run consecutively, only one at a time.”
The failures aren’t just a nuisance, they are a hazard according to the West Virginia Department of Environment Protection.
“Because the collection system is older and has some maintenance issues there are discharges of raw sewage occurring throughout Huntington and certain areas, said Brad Wright, Assistant Chief Inspector for Environmental Enforcement in the Division of Water and Waste. “We cited 54 specific overflows of raw sewage in that order. That is of greatest concern and to me. If I’m a resident of Huntington, raw sewage in my backyard or somewhere in the city is of great concern to me.”
From 2015 to 2021 state regulators cited well over 100 violations of the city’s Water Pollution Control Permit for excessive discharge from the wastewater treatment plant.
“Huntington has been exceeding some of those parameters in the discharge from their facility,” Wright said. “That is the 143 violations that we are including. They varied. There were a lot of ammonia exceedances and there were some other parameters. Those are not immediately toxic discharges but they are not protective of the use of the water and they are slowly degrading the waterway.”
The violations led to $325,000 in fines from the WV-DEP.
Problems with the outdated system are costing the city in other ways by limiting opportunities for economic development. It is a situation that is frustrating for the Huntington Area Development Council.
“It is frustrating from our perspective because we have opportunities that we are working on that we may not be able to attract here simply because we don’t have the capacity with the wastewater stream,” said David Lieving, President and CEO of the Huntington Area Development Council (HADCO) the lead economic development organization for Cabell and Wayne Counties.
The Huntington Sanitary Board is working on major upgrades that will separate the lines between 3rd and 5th street, upgrade the ailing pump stations and improve the wastewater treatment plant. The city will tap into $40 million in grants as well as low-interest loans. Customers will also be paying more.
Even with the expected benefits, Wanda Staley said the extra money will be a strain on her budget.
“I’m on a fixed income and I can’t,” Staley said. “To live I’ve got to try to watch what I spend and that is kind of hard when you’ve got to pay extra on everything else. The electric, the water, everything is going up.”
Victor Simpson has lived in Enslow Park for 30 years. He’s dealt with flooding in the community numerous times. Simpson says it isn’t unusual for high water to block the only bridge providing access into and out of the neighborhood. The city says flooding in that community is not caused by the outdated sewer system. Most say run-off from nearby development along with a bottleneck in Fourpole Creek cause the high water that impacts Simpson’s neighborhood. But Brian Bracey said when water overtook the banks of Fourpole Creek in May of 2022 it started going into the city’s combined stormwater system causing sewer to back up into numerous homes.
“It is sewer water, it is creek water, it is everything you know,” Simpson said. He said he is willing to pay a little more on his sewer bill if it will make the system better.
“A little bit more yea, just peace of mind you know,” Simpson said. He has advocated for years to get something done about the flooding in general and says he will continue to ask that something be done about that, separate issue.
While the vote by Huntington’s City Council Monday will move the process forward things won’t get better right away. Design, bidding, and construction will take years. Construction on the plant itself is set to start in 2024 and be completed somewhere around 2028.
13 News asked Huntington Mayor Steve Williams why the sewer system was allowed to get so bad before something was done.
“They are asking ‘why did it take so long’, because I wasn’t in office all this time,” Williams said. “I know that sounds a bit arrogant but we’ve made our bones by making the real hard decisions here. I’m proud that we’ve made the hard decisions. Nobody else has done this. But everybody else in the future is going to benefit as a result of us doing what needs to be done.”
Many say the upgrades are vital for the future of Huntington.
“It is an economic development issue, it is an environmental issue, it is a public health issue,” Lieving said. “I don’t think it is anything to be taken lightly.”
Customer fees will increase in 4 phases. The increases will eventually add just over $27 per month to the minimum bill.
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