It’s no secret that Pennsylvania’s infrastructure grades aren’t great – the most recent American Society of Civil Engineers report on the Keystone state put it at a “C-“ overall.
Out of the 16 categories of infrastructure the ASCE grades, Pennsylvania’s best was freight rail, at a “B.” The state’s worst grades were, as is often discussed, in roads and bridges, the items that most people first associate with infrastructure.
But there is also another item on which PA ranks among the worst. Wastewater infrastructure is a “D-“ in the Keystone state, according to the ASCE.
Wastewater is a peculiar infrastructure issue, as opposed to transportation. The latter has robust and largely centralized agencies – such as PennDOT in Pennsylvania – that oversee and fund its improvement and expansion, even if progress on this has been sub-par in past decades.
Wastewater, on the other hand, relies on either municipal sewer networks, on individual property owners’ on-lot septic systems, with arms-length oversight by state and federal regulators.
This decentralization is particularly acute in areas such as the Midstate, where wastewater infrastructure consists of dozens of small municipal sewer authorities and thousands of on-lot systems installed by homeowners and developers who aren’t close enough to a municipal sewer line to make it economically feasible to route into it.
“It really varies by area, but I’ll tell you that most of the systems that were put in in the 1960s and 70s have already failed and been replaced,” said Ken Peck, owner of Peck’s Septic Service.
“Now we’re into the 80s systems, but I would say that starting in the 80s there was a little better oversight as to the installation and testing which actually allowed these systems to last longer,” Peck continued.
Exactly how much new wastewater infrastructure is being installed in Pennsylvania, and how long it will last before it fails, is difficult to gauge.
The main problem is a lack of data. Pennsylvania requires all new wastewater infrastructure to be certified by a local Sewer Enforcement Officer (SEO), who is appointed at the municipal level. SEOs then register any permits they issue with the PA Department of the Environment.
But the DEP is not tasked with putting together any overall trend data.
“My understanding is that we just keep a copy of the permits, we don’t track them in any way,” said DEP spokesman Neil Shader.
Additionally, the stress on SEOs has increased in some parts of the state, as development continues apace while fewer officers are getting into the trade.
“There is some concern that as the SEOs who are in now start to retire, if the workload were to pick up, are there going to be enough SEOs to handle the workload,” said Mark Mitman, administrator for the Pennsylvania Sewage Enforcement Officers’ Association. “More are retiring than are coming on board.”
The ASCE grade references a 2008 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which used DEP reports and US Census data to estimate the volume of on-lot septic systems and their repair.
In 2004, with 65 percent of the state’s municipalities reporting, the CRP found 15,918 on-lot septic permits issued, of which 20 percent were for repair. Over a fourth of these were in the 15-county Southcentral region, as defined by the DEP, which Cumberland County is in the center of. Out of the 4,158 permits in the region in 2004, 26 percent were for repairs.
Peck said that the spike in repairs for on-lot wastewater systems was largely due to incorrect installation in previous decades. Pennsylvania does not have particularly good soil geography for gravity-drained treatment systems.
“A lot of the systems were put too deep into the soil,” Peck said, noting that most areas of the region have a relatively shallow “limiting zone” below which processed septic effluent won’t drain.
“A lot of the older systems were put into the limiting zone area, which means the water does not go down, it goes sideways,” Peck continued.
Newer systems, particularly systems with sand mounds dug into the soil, avoid this problem.
But the other hurdle in this process is a matter of space. Pennsylvania’s Act 537, which requires municipalities to hire SEOs and enact sewer and septic placement plans, restricts how close systems can be to each other, as well as to water sources. Nevertheless, the state still have 205 stream-miles and 3,310 lake-acres of waterways with pollution from on-lot septic, the ASCME noted, citing DEP data.
In many cases, older systems packed too tight together created problems, often leading small municipalities to band together in the creation of municipal authorities to create public sewer access.
But sewer access is not free to build. A Sentinel analysis last year found that municipal debt across all of Cumberland County’s townships and boroughs averaged $1,487 per person, most of it associated with wastewater infrastructure.
A legislative task force report four in 2008 that Pennsylvania needs roughly $25 billion in wastewater infrastructure improvements through 2028. But the total amount of funding provided on an annual basis lags far behind that.
The major source of support for municipalities, with regard to water and wastewater funding, is the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority, or PENNVEST, which manages a capital pool of both state and federal money.
In the 2016-2017 fiscal year, the authority provided $256.8 million in financing to dozens of municipalities and municipal authorities, and has provided over $8 billion in assistance since its inception in 1988.
But this is still below projected need, the ASCE notes. The bottom line on how to fix Pennsylvania’s “D-“ sewer and septic infrastructure is that “the case for increased federal investment to assist Pennsylvania and the other states is compelling,” the ASCE wrote. “Needs are large and unprecedented; in many locations, local sources cannot be expected to meet this challenge alone.”