Grant withdrawal stalls W.Va.'s No. 1 bay project - Albany Times Union

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A $36 million wastewater treatment plant in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle would make a big difference in the state's relatively small role in restoring the Chesapeake Bay, but it's run into a funding snag.

State and local officials say a nearly $3 million federal grant that was approved in 2008 is being withdrawn, threatening the project that would serve the town of Moorefield, Hardy County and its poultry industry, sharply reducing pollution into the south branch of the Potomac River, which flows into the bay.

Now they are wondering: How will states, cities and towns pay for what has been called the most ambitious U.S. water pollution control project ever undertaken?

Even the Environmental Protection Agency, which is directing the cleanup, acknowledges that funding will be a challenge.

The Hardy County plant stands above all other projects in the Eastern Panhandle, which are within the bay's headwaters. It would address inadequate public wastewater plants and also the huge Pilgrim's Pride Corp. operation that processes 2 million chickens each week.

"It is the single most important project in West Virginia, by far, of any of the projects or upgrades required under the bay plan," said Mike Warwick of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Communities in the panhandle must modernize 13 wastewater treatment plants along waterways that drain into the bay. The EPA has called on these communities to reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus they release.

Warwick, an engineer with the state's clean water revolving fund, said the upgrades in the panhandle total an estimated $200 million.

The overall cost in Virginia alone to comply with the stringent bay pollution standards is in the range of $8 billion to $10 billion. The total cost for states within the 64,000-square-mile watershed has been estimated at $30 billion through 2025.

The costs have mounted as the environmentally battered bay has grown more polluted because states for decades failed to deal with farm and urban runoff, sewage-laden storm overflows and other pollution that flows from the watershed's six states and Washington, D.C. Some 17 million people live in the watershed.

Pollution and disease have decimated the bay's once-abundant oyster stocks and created "dead zones."

With President Barack Obama's backing, the EPA is now directing the cleanup effort and has established a "pollution diet" for the bay states and the district.

Hardy County was moving toward that goal when a key funding piece fell through.

It was a nearly $3 million federal grant secured in 2008 by the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The funding loss was a victim of federal budget cuts.

For Phyllis Cole, the uncertainty hanging over the Hardy County treatment plant is especially tough after shepherding the project along since 2001 and securing most of its funding.

"When we spoke to EPA, they stated in lieu of laying off employees the agency had instead chosen to rescind projects until the issues are resolved," said Cole, a former state legislator.

EPA correspondence provided by Cole shows that funding commitments totaling $5.5 million would be delivered to Hardy County, still short of the plant's price tag.

Funding for the plant is a finely tuned package of local borrowing, state and federal dollars and matching funds. The loss of one funding source has a domino effect.

Pilgrim's Pride, which employs approximately 2,000 at two plants in Hardy County, is a key partner as well, donating the 60 acres upon which the treatment plant would be built, providing financing, 86 percent of the annual debt service and operation and maintenance costs. It also has provided environmental expertise in developing the plant's design.

Vernon Rowe, Pilgrim's corporate environmental consultant, said if all the promised funding isn't secured, the project is in jeopardy.

"It's very important that the basic funding package come through," Rowe said, adding that he's frustrated that the project has been ready to go to bid and make an environmental difference for the bay.

Hardy County isn't alone in dealing with the expected costs of complying with the bay's pollution diet.

The Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, representing 16 localities in southeastern Virginia, has estimated a typical household in the region could pay up to $800 more annually for various pollution-reduction projects.

In Lynchburg, on the James River, officials say the city will have to spend $120 million to comply with the bay's pollution diet. That sum approaches the city's entire annual operating budget of $150 million.

"It's just a huge, huge expense," City Manager L. Kimball Payne said. He said there is plenty of blame to go around for the costs of dealing with the bay, including decades of inaction.

The EPA's senior bay adviser, Jeff Corbin, told Hampton Roads officials last year he was sympathetic to the concerns about the costs of the bay cleanup, but he echoed a similar sentiment.

"I don't mean to belittle the seriousness of this but these have been the same questions for at least two decades now," Corbin said in an interview. "At some point you have to say: 'Are we really committed?'"

Proponents of the restoration, particularly the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, have also stressed the economic benefits the region will reap once the bay's health is restored.

Cole, meantime, is committed to getting the treatment plant built and she's working every political connection she has, including acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

"We've got a plan," she said. "We're ready to go."


Steve Szkotak can be reached by Twitter at


Chesapeake Bay Program:

25 Sep, 2011

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