State environmental regulators are cracking down on a situation that has existed in Tamaqua for well over 100 years.
On Monday, the Department of Environmental Protection ordered Tamaqua Borough and its borough authority to identify all residential and commercial properties not connected to the existing sewer system and require them to connect.
Essentially, the borough was given eight months to rework remnants of a primitive sewage disposal system set up in the 1890s or earlier.
Years later, when the borough installed more elaborate sewerage throughout the town, many early buildings located near the Wabash Creek weren't connected to the new mains. Nobody today seems to know why that is so, and no early records exist to document exactly what took place.
The DEP-forced action would end long-standing illegal sewer discharges into the Wabash Creek, say regulators.
"We requested action on this pollution problem for several years, but the borough's failure to address the problem left us with no choice but to order them to comply," said DEP northeast regional director Michael Bedrin.
Borough manager Kevin Steigerwalt said work has been under way to resolve the issue.
"We're aware of the situation. It's been in discussion for a long time and we're working to correct it," said Steigerwalt to the TIMES NEWS on Monday.
The order requires the Schuylkill County municipality to identify properties not connected to the borough's sewer system, including two previously confirmed and 39 other potentially illegal sewage discharge pipes.
The borough must then document that all illegal sewage discharges are connected to the existing sewage collection system by Aug. 31, 2011.
The identity and location of the properties is not known in any official manner at this time, although the DEP order indicates that the Tamaqua Public Library has been identified as one property in violation.
The DEP says it made several attempts to get the borough to investigate the problem, and conducted dye tests in the system and sampled the creek this past July. The dye testing was done in the library and DEP inspectors found that the Tamaqua Public Library discharged sewage directly into Wabash Creek. What makes that case unusual is that the library is a later construction. Other buildings suspected of being in violation are much earlier structures.
The library must connect to the sewage collection system by May 31, 2011, according to the DEP order.
"There are no excuses for these violations. The borough was responsible for dealing with this pollution, failed in that responsibility and allowed raw sewage to be discharged to the creek," said Bedrin.
The issue has been discussed for decades and involves infrastructure in a downtown in which streets and buildings were constructed directly over the creek.
The Wabash Creek is enclosed in a 150-year-old stone arch tunnel that carries the waterway beneath the town's business district and a nearby residential area.
In some cases, the creek flows through or beneath basement levels of homes and businesses.
The hidden configuration provides difficulty in tracing illegal discharges. Plus, there are no existing infrastructure maps indicating the layout of pipes and discharge sources. In addition, cell phones and GPS systems won't function inside the tunnel, which can cause investigators to experience disorientation.
"There are some obstacles," acknowledges Steigerwalt.
Steigerwalt said the borough has been developing an action plan all along. For instance, the borough will soon advertise a request for proposals to hire a contractor. The contractor would be relied on to identify which buildings are in violation and the steps necessary to make corrections. In addition, Steigerwalt and other officials, including then-state Rep. (and now state senator) David G. Argall, walked through one-half mile of the tunnel in recent years to assess the situation.
The borough also is exploring funding options.
The current ordinance states that all buildings within 150 feet of a sewer main must be connected. Borough officials say the cost of physically connecting a property's sewer line to the main is the responsibility of the property owner. That situation would hold true, say officials, even if the property owner had been paying municipal sewer fees all along when the property was not connected.