WESTERNPORT — The Verso paper mill shutdown has created more questions than answers regarding water service for citizens living and working in the Tri-Towns area.
The reason water and sanitary sewer services have become a topic of discussion is that many residents in the area receive those services through the paper mill, which ceased paper production in the early hours of May 31 and closes June 30.
Officials estimate roughly 4,000 citizens live and work in the Tri-Towns area — Westernport, Luke and Piedmont, West Virginia — as well as adjacent communities in southwestern Allegany County. According to officials, customers in the area are likely to see an increase in their water/sewer bills as a result of the mill closure, with residents of Luke being billed for the first time.
Luke, with roughly 100 citizens, will be directly impacted since its water/sewer lines are interconnected with the Verso paper mill. The mill, which pulls water from the North Branch of the Potomac River and filters it, has supplied water to Luke residents at no charge for decades.
In addition, Luke residents have not paid for sanitary sewer service. The town’s sewer effluent also went to the paper mill, which piped it to the wastewater treatment plant in Westernport — operated by the Upper Potomac River Commission (UPRC) — free of charge.
According to officials, Verso is under contract to supply Luke with water/sewer service until Nov. 21, 2020.
At one time, years ago, Luke residents also received electricity and steam heat from the mill. Later, the mill charged residents $20 a month for the heat. However, the mill eventually discontinued providing those utilities and residents went through traditional carriers.
As for Piedmont, it is tied into the mill for water. The mill delivers raw river water to the municipality, which has its own filtration plant. Piedmont does have a water supply line extending to the Savage River Dam, however, the aging line deteriorated to the point the line was shut down years ago. Replacing the seven-mile line would cost millions of dollars, Piedmont Mayor Ben Smith said.
“Water is first. If you don’t have water you don’t have sewage,” Smith said. “Our proposal: we were going to buy water from Westernport. But, they have not given us any prices or anything so far.”
Westernport, independent of the mill for water, is in better shape. The town, with the help of state and federal grants, underwent an $8 million renovation of its water supply line, which pulls water from the Savage River Dam. The upgrade took place in 2005 when the 7.5 miles of 10-inch pipe was replaced with a 16-inch line. Westernport also has its own water filtration system.
Both Piedmont and Luke officials hope to eventually be connected to Westernport’s water supply line and become independent of the mill.
“We will have water folks; it’s being worked on,” Luke Mayor Ed Clemons Jr. said during a May 31 Town Council meeting. “Are we going on Westernport? It is not finalized, nothing is finalized on how it will be done. Whatever option is pursued, it will have to meet all legal qualifications for potable drinking water. You will not be fed dirty raw water out of the river or something of that nature; it is not legal.”
Benjamin H. Grumbles, Maryland Secretary of the Environment, visited Allegany County on May 28. He said the state is “looking very carefully at the situation,” and is “looking at a water pipeline from Westernport.”
“We are also in coordination with Piedmont, West Virginia, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection,” Grumbles said. “They’re looking at another water line that would go from Westernport to Piedmont that could also help provide water for that region. Our department has funds for water and sewer and we are committed to making sure we meet these essential needs.”
Grumbles said the state is also studying the situation at the UPRC wastewater treatment facility.
Unlike Luke, Piedmont and Westernport’s sewer lines run straight to the facility, bypassing the mill. However, if the plant isn’t running full capacity, the remaining customers will have to pay more to cover the cost of the operation.
According to officials, the paper mill was the source for 98% of the wastewater treatment plant’s flow.
The UPRC is expected to lay off about seven employees as a result of the mill closure. However, it can’t reduce its equipment and system because it’s possible a new company could buy the mill and open it back up, needing the industrial-capacity treatment facility.
Del. Wendell Beitzel has served on the UPRC board for 30 years. He spoke May 28 at a meeting at the Allegany County Office Complex in Cumberland.
“It’s a huge operation there,” he said. “The treatment plant receives 20 million gallons a day from the mill. We requested, and had a meeting with Verso about how we are to continue.
“Obviously, the treatment plant can’t operate without that revenue that comes from the paper mill. The paper mill pays 90-some percent of the cost of operation of that facility contractually every year,” Beitzel said. “Verso indicated they want to continue to operate the treatment plant, as we have been for the mill, and they will keep us informed as they reduce flows. They expressed an interest that we keep the permits in place and that sort of thing going forward until we work through all these issues.”
Dawn Beitzel of the Maryland Rural Development Corp. said help is on its way for Luke. At the town’s May 31 meeting, she said grant funds are coming available for “a new proposed water system hopefully from Westernport.”
“The Maryland Department of the Environment has approved funding for that line from Westernport to Luke,” she said. “We are also hoping the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) will help with the funding.”
Dawn Beitzel also said $400,000 in funding from an existing Maryland Community Development Block Grant is being redirected to connect the town of Luke’s sanitary sewer directly to the UPRC.
“On the grant we had on the Pratt Street (Luke) sewer, we are taking the funding from the phase one of the sewer project and moving all that into engineering for a collection and conveyance system for a new sewer to connect directly to UPRC,” Dawn Beitzel said. “Along with that, the state is requiring we do a standard geo-technical survey of the town, and money for that will also come from the grant we have in place.”
A citizen asked about the bills and the new rates for water and sewer.
“There are still a lot of unknowns, but all of that will be something that will be discussed in the future as we learn more,” Clemons said.
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.