HERMITAGE – It’s taken more than 15 years of work but the city of Hermitage is out of the doghouse with state environmental officials concerning its water pollution control plant.

Plant Superintendent Tom Darby announced Thursday he had received a letter dated Tuesday from the state Department of Environmental Protection that the city is no longer subject to a consent order and agreement.

“We no longer have any restrictions whatsoever,” Darby told commissioners.

It took no small effort to get there. Hermitage Municipal Authority, which owns the sanitary sewer system, and the city, which operates and maintains it, spent millions of dollars improving the Broadway Avenue plant and sanitary sewer collection system. Sewer users picked up much of the tab.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment,” City Manager Gary P. Hinkson said. “It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people.”

Hinkson singled out Darby, Hermitage Municipal Authority Chairman Fred M. Heiges, city and authority solicitor Thomas W. Kuster and city employees. He also said he appreciates the cooperation of DEP officials.

“It’s certainly different not to be under it,” Hinkson said. “It’s almost been a regular way of business, we’ve been under it so long.”

The issue goes back to the mid-’90s when the plant would occasionally discharge untreated sewage into Bobby Run after heavy rains.

The plant, which also serves parts of Wheatland, Shenango Township, South Pymatuning Township and Clark, did not have the capacity to handle heavy flows, and too much rain water was getting into the system through illegal connections and defects in pipes and manholes.

The city’s discharge permit lapsed and the water released into the environment did not meet quality standards.

“This isn’t something where we turned our backs on the system or our responsibility to the environment or to the state regulating agency,” Hinkson said in 2003.

However, city and state officials didn’t always agree on the extent or work to be done and how quickly it should be completed.

The two sides entered a consent order and agreement in 2003 that set limits on new connections to the system.

City officials committed to two plant expansions; investigating lines and manholes looking for defects; eliminating illegal connections; replacing or rehabbing lines already known to have problems; building new lines to take in homes with malfunctioning on-lot systems; and renovating a pump station and building a new one.

Shortly after the agreement was signed, commissioners adopted an ordinance requiring inspections of sewer laterals – the sewer pipes that run from homes to the collection lines – before a property connected to the system could be sold. The inspections look for defective or leaking laterals and downspouts or French drains that are illegally dumping rain water into the sanitary sewer system.

In August 2008, the state banned all new connections to the system because the city would not complete the second plant expansion by 2010. A new consent order and agreement was signed and DEP allowed new connections in 2009.

Commissioner Rita L. Ferringer asked what this all cost. Darby responded with a quip about it not being the amount of money spent that mattered.

Suffice it to say, it took tens of millions of dollars.

While the city received a few grants along the way, particularly for the latest expansion – which incorporates new technologies to save money in the long run and lessen the impact on the environment – user fees more than doubled as a result.

In 2002, residential sewer customers paid $66 a quarter. Last year, rates went up to $142.50 a quarter.

Hinkson said the new technologies, designed to generate electricity by “cooking” sludge and food waste and selling a higher quality sludge, were undertaken to try to “stabilize” the plant’s long-term finances, hopefully to the benefit of users.

The city could benefit in ways not previously considered if the plant can generate enough biogas to make compressed natural gas to fuel city vehicles and possibly vehicles owned by private and public agencies.

While the consent order no longer is in effect, the city still is obligated to continually inspect and rehab the collection lines, pump stations and manholes, Hinkson said.

Officials also will be looking to increase efficiency at the plant and add more properties to the collection system, he said.

“We still have work to do, just not under a consent order from DEP,” Hinkson said. “In this business, there’s always things to be done.”

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