Unpermitted sewer lines that discharge untreated sewage, known as wildcat sewers, threaten to further delay the already nearly decade-long Act 537 project for West Penn Township and Walker Township.

Sewage Enforcement Officer Scott C. Bieber of Lehigh Soils and Wetlands, the sub consultant hired to redo an outdated needs assessment survey, revisited 230 of 231 homes that were suspected to have septic issues.

On Sept. 25, the sewer committee met with the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) where Bieber presented a draft of the needs assessment survey. At the West Penn supervisors' meeting last evening, township engineer Ronald B. Madison, PE said the good news is that the sewer needs of the study areas are not as widespread as the original survey done by Ludgate Engineering showed them to be, which means that a costly public sewer system is unlikely necessary. (The one done by Ludgate previously estimated the project to cost $11.5 million, and it would have left the homeowners who were involved in this option with $104-a-month sewer bill until the debt of the project was fully paid.)

As this new survey was finished, however, the issue of the wildcat sewers followed. Further investigation has to be done, which could delay the completion of the full Act 537 plan update, the deadline for which is Dec. 31. Madison said South Tamaqua has some homes that were built using these wildcat sewer lines, and there might be one in Clamtown and Andreas.

"There may be a lot (of homes connected into wildcat sewers)," sewer committee member Ted Bogosh said, "but until there's further investigation, we don't know."

Photos from the survey show discharge of these wildcat systems clear evidence that the unpermitted wildcats exist but the real problem is identifying exactly which homes are tied into them. Some of the wildcat sewer pipelines, according to Bogosh, are nearly 100 meters long, and some pipelines are short. The main concern of DEP is how many homes are on these systems and how far the pipes run.

Although an investigation is unavoidable, both solicitor Gretchen Sterns and Madison agree that it would be a mistake to do it during the planning stage.

"The need to investigate the wildcat sewers won't go away," Madison said. "It's just whether or not you're doing it now as part of the planning process or later as part of the implementation process."

A major drawback of investigating now, Sterns said, is that the townships will be stuck paying for the planning part of the project, for they are responsible by law for all planning costs. The estimated cost for West Penn and Walker townships since the planning phase of Act 537 began in 2003, up to March of this year, has been $276,907. In addition to that is the $79,200 to have Bieber redo the survey.

To prevent any further unnecessary spending, West Penn supervisors said they would rather let homeowners sort out their sewer issues at their own costs by either having them install on-lot sewer options or having several houses share a system.

"For practical reasons," Sterns said, "the people who are most likely on these wildcat sewers are already in the areas identified that we have to take action on anyway, and to further delay that action is just a longer period of time that these wildcats are operating."

Sterns also said that she thinks the township could end up in a situation where they have to take people to court to test to find out whether they are on a wildcat sewer. (The reason for the final home not being surveyed, according to Bogosh, was because the owner told Bieber to get off his property.)

This, Sterns argued, is why fixing the wildcat sewers as the project progresses is more practical than first looking at what they will have to fix later anyway.

"We already know we have to correct them," said Sterns. "I think it's a little redundant for DEP to say, 'Well, now tell us exactly who's on what wildcat sewer.' They're all getting corrected anyway, so what?"

Madison said he will be at the Walker Township supervisors' meeting this Thursday at 7:30 p.m. to update them and answer any questions they or the public might have.

The next West Penn Township board of supervisors meeting will be Monday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. in the municipal building.