HUNTINGTON, WV (WOWK) – After a long series of fines and repeated water quality violations, the Huntington Sanitary Board plans to make a series of facility upgrades to the city’s nearly 100-year-old sewer system which is running at near capacity.

The city says the multiple fines received due to those violations are a direct result of the city’s “antiquated system and deteriorating infrastructure.”

According to the Huntington Sanitary Board, the city has been cited 143 times between 2015 and 2021 for violations of its water pollution control permit for “excessive discharge from the wastewater treatment plant.” The board says those discharges are a result of the plant operating at or near its full capacity.

“Inaction is not an option,” Mayor Steve Williams said. “We’ve put this off for too long, kicking the can down the road rather than dealing with our decaying sewer and storm water systems.”

The city says the HSB approved the proposed infrastructure upgrades at a regularly-scheduled Nov. 10 meeting, and the City Council Finance Committee voted to move the project to the full council on Nov. 14. The council plans to hold a first reading tonight, Monday, Nov. 28, with a vote expected in mid-December.

The Huntington Sanitary Board says the $200 million project will be mostly paid for through federal and state grants and loans, including grant funds from the American Rescue Plan Act.

However, to help cover the costs of repaying the loans helping support the project, customers will see a “stepped increase” in their user rates that will be phased in over several years. City officials say that “stepped fee increase” will eventually add $27.20 per month to customers’ minimum bill.

“This once-in-a-generation opportunity to access $40 million in grants and $160 million in low-interest loans will make certain that Huntington can chart its own future, allowing the city and region to grow while keeping our children and families healthy and ensuring that critical public infrastructure can serve us for another 50 years,” Williams said.

According to the board, one portion of the project will be to separate the lines at 3rd Avenue and 5th Avenue to reduce the risk of flooding along the primary corridors through the city and improve public safety.

“Huntington’s flooding woes are well-documented,” said Brian Bracey, executive director of the Huntington Water Quality Board (HWQB), including the Huntington Sanitary Board (HSB). “It only takes an hourly rainfall of one inch to flood our city streets – and the combined overflow of both storm and sewage water poses significant safety hazards, from submerged vehicles to potentially life-threatening delays in emergency vehicle response times.”

According to the board, the current wastewater treatment plant is operating at 98% BOD capacity and last underwent a major capital improvement in the 1980s. Officials say the limitation could have an impact on the city’s ability to connect new businesses, homes, industries, churches, schools, etc. to the sewage system.

Bracey says the long-delayed upgrades have caught up to them and between the significant fines and risk of a federal takeover, they are also fighting just to keep things running even as some walls threaten to crumble.

“Wastewater treatment plants should be rehabilitated every 30 to 40 years. We are at 60 years,” Bracey said indicating a dedication plaque from 1964. “We haven’t done any upgrades to this plant. The only thing we’ve done is added a secondary treatment, and it is at the end of its life as well because it’s at the 40-year mark. The air chamber that sits [underground] is actually coming out through the walls, so the air is pushing, this concrete is deteriorating to the point that the air is poking holes through it. We don’t know how bad, we just know that one day this will fail.”

Between 2015 and 2021, the sewage system incurred other penalties besides the 143 citations for dry weather discharges that were caused mostly by failed pumps or line blockages, which cause raw sewage to discharge onto the ground or into streams. The Board says each time these discharges happened, the city was cited for “failure to appropriately maintain a Combined Sewer System Overflow,” which is a requirement of the city’s Long Term Control Plan (LTCP).

According to the board, the allowable number of discharges allowed by the LTCP is 42 per seven-year period. In that timeframe, the board admits there were 489 discharges. In Dec. 2021, the city was fined more than $325,000 by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and has received multiple fines from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“If the volume is coming and we get a rain event, we can’t stop the flow; this is a natural gravity flow plant,” Bracey said. “That means we are just discharging waste out into the waterways of the US – in a violation of the US EPA.”

If the city’s sewage system is not brought into compliance, the Huntington Sanitation Board says they are at risk of a takeover by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Our choice is clear,” said Jim Rorrer, HWQB vice chairman. “Continue with the status quo, and the escalating threats to public health, safety and local self-governance — or rally together as a community and make a critical investment in Huntington’s future — on our own terms.”