PIEDMONT, W.Va. — Piedmont officials are working to secure a water supply for the town as the current provider plans to discontinue the service by Sept. 1.
Piedmont and the town of Luke, Maryland, have received water for years from the Luke paper mill, owned by the Verso Corp. However, Verso closed the mill last summer ending a 131-year run of paper production at the location. The company has continued to supply water to the communities, but Verso officials want to close out all utilities as it moves forward with plans to take the mill “black” while they continue to vet potential offers for the property.
Verso wanted to shut the water off on July 18, according to Greg Harvey, Piedmont water commissioner. But they have extended the deadline while the municipalities work to establish the infrastructure needed to supply their own water service.
Verso extracts water from the North Branch of the Potomac River from behind the company dam beside the mill. They deliver raw water to Piedmont, which has a treatment plant, while furnishing potable water to Luke residents.
According to Harvey, Piedmont has around 270 taps servicing its 800 residents. Luke, with a population just under 100, has roughly 42 taps.
Although the communities paid little to nothing for water for decades thanks to the paper mill, times have changed for the residents.
“People thought the mill would be here forever,” Harvey said. “But now the chickens have come home to roost. We have to make decisions.”
Harvey said the most realistic scenario for Piedmont is to do what the town of Luke is doing: developing infrastructure to receive water from nearby Westernport.
One of the three Tri-Towns communities, Westernport has its own water supply. With the help of state and federal grants, Westernport underwent an $8 million modernization of its water supply line in 2005, which draws water from the Savage River Dam. In addition, Westernport has its own water filtration plant.
Harvey said design plans have been created for a supply line from Westernport to Piedmont. In addition, a pipeline connecting Westernport’s lines to Luke has also been drawn up. Federal dollars are reportedly available to cover the cost of both projects.
Under the arrangement, residents of Piedmont and Luke will be billed by their respective town offices that will in turn pay Westernport for supplying the water. Harvey said the residents will pay the same water bills — “no more and no less” — than the citizens of Westernport currently pay.
However, some Piedmont residents have raised concerns with the town receiving water from Westernport. Denny Powers has created the “Piedmont West Virginia Info Network” on Facebook.
Powers said he fears that Piedmont is giving its independence away by purchasing water in Maryland. Powers said he has done the math and it is feasible to construct a system that would give Piedmont its own independent water supply.
Piedmont, at one time, had a functioning water supply pipeline that delivered raw water from the Savage River Dam nearly seven miles away, giving the community its own system. However, the line fell into disrepair and had to be abandoned in the 1990s. The paper mill stepped in to fill the void and began supplying raw water to Piedmont.
“They have never considered other viable options for drawing water from the Savage River from a point closer to Piedmont,” said Powers. “There are definitely ways that we can draw water from the Savage no further than two or three miles from our water plant at most.”
However, the Piedmont Town Council and Harvey disagree with Powers’ assessment. Harvey said other options were already considered. He said a pipeline and pumping station at Savage River would need to be installed at a significant cost.
In addition, Harvey said rebuilding a new pipeline from the Savage River is not eligible for grant funding. The available federal funding is for connecting to Westernport’s line only.
Harvey said he also approached Verso about constructing a pump station at the paper mill dam in an effort to access raw water for Piedmont. Verso told Harvey they would allow it, but Piedmont must take possession of the dam under that scenario. Harvey said owning the dam, even if it was given for free, could result in bankrupting the small town if any problems occur.
Harvey believes connecting to Westernport’s system makes the most sense. He said other small communities purchase their water. He pointed to Ridgeley purchasing water from Cumberland and New Creek receiving water from Keyser.
To learn more about both sides of the issue, visit Powers’ Facebook page. Harvey gave a PowerPoint presentation on the topic during a recent Piedmont Town Council meeting. The meeting can be found on YouTube by searching, “June 17th, 2020 Piedmont West Virginia Council” or URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NS1LbfS7yHI&t=1159s.
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.