Members of Tamaqua's Borough Council got an earful last night from several citizens who are unhappy about the fact that they are responsible for footing the bill to connect to the sanitary sewer, after years of illegally, and in most cases, unknowingly, discharging waste into the Wabash Creek.
Although the project and its expense have people upset, one of the other issues that came to light at last night's meeting is the fact that by delaying the investigation of the problem the borough may have caused citizens to miss out on opportunities to seek outside funding or loans to help finance the project.
Anna Brose, of 249 West Broad St., said that the first letter she received regarding the problem and explaining that dye testing would be completed in the future was in 2008.
"It has taken three years to have the dye test done. I have a problem with that," she said. "There is no financial aid available. Two years ago, three years ago, there was money available. Now there is nothing."
Brose went on to say that she had received a letter from the borough stating that there was money available through the USDA and through Schuylkill Community Action.
"That money has dried up," she said. "Schuylkill Community Action said their funding dried up two years ago."
Brose said she could take a low interest loan through the borough, but still balked at the cost.
"I have paid a lot of money to the borough, as have a lot of people in this room," she said, referring to the estimated $9,200 she has paid in sewer bills over the last 30 years. "We just can't absorb this amount of money, when this could have been done how long ago and money would have been available," she said.
Borough President Micah Gursky agreed that the situation is not a good one. However, he stood by the borough's process.
"Everyone agrees that it should have been done a long time ago," he said. "Our initial plan was to dye test the properties, but the cost was much higher than we could afford as a borough. That was the delay. We were trying to figure out options, how to figure out who needed to hook up."
Gursky also said this is not the first time that the borough has had to deal with properties where the owners believed that they were connected to the public system and were in fact, not.
"It happens from time to time," he said. "Unfortunately, everyone is required to hook up."
Councilman Tom Cara said that the borough was willing to "let this thing go on because we didn't want to put the burden on you." However, Gursky disagreed.
"You can't flush your toilet into the creek," he said.
Resident Kevin Kellner, who lost his home at 5 South Lehigh St. in a fire on July 5, was one of the property owners who was notified that he was not connected. Kellner said that his lawyer had advised him that the residents will be required to pay to connect to the sewer, however, he told him that he should recoup the money that he has paid to the borough over the years in sewer bills.
Gursky said that the borough has "been down that road before" and does not expect that the borough will be required to reimburse residents. Kellner also asked why DEP has not been held accountable for the cleanup of local waterways, including the Wabash and the Panther Creek.
Another unfortunate issue with the timing of the project has to deal with the Streetscape project that was recently completed along sections of Broad Street. Many of the property owners will be required to dig through the new sidewalks and pavers and replace them in order to connect to the sewer main.
"Yeah, we're kicking ourselves because we're going to have to cut into new sidewalks," said Gursky.
One resident could be looking at an even larger project. Daniel Lattanzi, of 403 E. Broad St., is facing an estimated $25,000 in bills as he would need to connect to a main located on the other side of Broad Street, which would necessitate digging all the way across Route 209. Lattanzi has lived at the seven unit apartment complex since 1950 and owned it since 1962. Although he said he could pursue a cheaper alternative and install a grinder pump and avoid crossing 209, he has no control over what is going into that pump and is not willing to risk incurring more expense for the continual upkeep of the pump.
"I can't get a bit of help. We've been hung out to dry," he said, calling it a "moral issue."
"I feel the borough should do something," he added.
Another resident, Maria Burke, of Rowe Street, asked what will happen to residents who cannot comply with the Aug. 31 deadline. Burke expressed the frustration that many residents feel at being told they are breaking the law.
"I don't want my crap going in the freaking creek. Who does? We want to do the right thing," she said, but she indicated that with a newborn at home, she may not be able to find the money and additionally, trying to find a plumber to complete the work by Aug. 31 is going to be difficult with more than 40 properties needing to be addressed.
"We're begging you," she said to council members, "be an advocate for us."
Councilman Brian Connelly said that the borough will contact other offices, including U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, to see if there is any aid that can be made available to residents.
However, he and other council members are not optimistic that funding will be forthcoming, especially not by the Aug. 31 deadline.
Borough manager Kevin Steigerwalt said that the borough will definitely need to ask DEP for an extension. The Tamaqua Public Library has already missed its deadline to connect to a lateral on a neighboring property and will need to look at another alternative.
Steigerwalt said that DEP has been advised of that situation and has not approved or denied an extension request, it has just asked that it be corrected as soon as possible.