The Chesapeake Bay Watershed bill enacted this past March by the legislature was a great victory for the Eastern Panhandle.
Sponsored and skillfully maneuvered to passage by Sen. Herb Snyder, the bill will save customers of public sewer systems in the eastern eight counties of West Virginia about a third of what it would have cost them to bring their sewer plants up to the standards mandated by federal law for such plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It does so by providing $6 million of "excess video lottery" money per year for 30 years to be dedicated to debt service so that local sewer districts can float bonds to pay for the required additional infrastructure.
Any sewage treatment plant that processes at least 400,000 gallons per day is eleigible for this money. There are about a dozen such plants in the eight easternmost counties, all of which are entirely within the Chesaspeake Bay watershed. A portion of Tucker County (location of the "Fairfax Stone," which marks the origin of the Potomac River) is also in the Chesapeake, as is a small portion of Monroe County.
The Waiteville area of Monroe County is on the eastern slope of the "Allegheny Front," the grand escarpment that separates the waters flowing into the Atlantic Ocean from those flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. That area drains into the James River. Legend has it that the good citizens of Waiteville and environs, strongly opposed to the Commonwealth of Virginia's secession from the union before the Civil War, wanted nothing to do with the Old Dominion after the war and successfully insisted that they be made part of West Virginia.
Much of the debate about the Chesapeake Bay bill both in Charleston and in the Panhandle involved blaming or applauding (depending upon one's point of view) the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the higher water quality standards imposed on residents of the Chesapeake region. I suggest that many who have been blaming have been giving the EPA too much criticism and many who have been applauding have been giving it too much credit.
On three different occasions the US Congress has decreed the Bay be made cleaner. In 1974 the Congress designated the Chesapeake Bay a "national treasure" and authorized a multi-state compact to restore and protect it. The next year the Congress restated its designation of the Bay as a "national treasure" and directed the EPA to study the Bay's condition. And in 1987 the Congress amended the Clean Water Act to specifically include the Chesapeake for special attention.
It took an executive order by President Barack Obama two years ago to get the EPA to do what the U.S. Congress had ordered done years before.
Should the Chesapeake have been given such a designation by the U.S. Congress? Beats me, and it's not my job as a West Virginia legislator to decide that. Anyone who disagrees with the Bay's designation as a national treasure should take the issue up with the U.S. Congress. But I believe no one should criticize the EPA for finally doing its job, although criticism for taking so long would I think be justified.
It took Sen. Snyder many months to get a bill crafted that could pass and he did a truly masterful job getting it through the Senate. Lots of folks from the rest of West Virginia were strongly opposed to helping the Eastern Panhandle. Don't misunderstand the term "excess video lottery." This money each year is transferred from the Lottery Fund to the General Fund and is used to fund many government services. Prying it loose was tough, but Snyder got it done.
When the bill got to the House I was worried that the Finance Committee, upon which I serve, would want to severely cut the amount dedicated to the Bay cleanup. I was relieved when Harry Kieth White, Chair of House Finance, told me he wanted to keep the money intact but include the Greenbrier River watershed in the area of eligibility for this bill.
The Greenbrier is not subject to the same high environmental standards as the Chesapeake, but it is the most polluted river in the state. Only two or three plants in the Greenbrier watershed will qualify for funds from this bill, so it won't dilute the money very much. I thought this a reasonable compromise and accepted it. When told of the agreement Sen. Snyder approved.
Two treatment plants in the Bay watershed, Shepherdstown and Moorefield, have already installed equipment that will bring them up to Chesapeake standards. Moorefield will not be eligible for any rebates because the cost of upgrading its plant was borne entirely by the Pilgrim's Pride poultry conglomerate, which has a huge chicken processing factory there (several thousand employees) which contributes to much of the pollution in the upper Potomac.
But the upgrading of the Shepherdstown plant is already being paid for by Shepherdstown's sewer customers. They will see a decrease in their rates in about a year.
By way of disclaimer, I live in a neighborhood that is served by Shepherdstown water but not by Shepherdstown sewer. My neighbors and I will not see decreases. And now, to be blatantly self-serving, I wish we were served by Shepherdstown sewer.