Pennsylvania: Pay your fair share for clean water | Opinion
By Ted Evgeniadis and Tom Pelton
Every year, the Pennsylvania state capital funnels an estimated 800 million gallons of sewage mixed with rainwater into the Susquehanna River, including untreated human waste from the Governor’s Residence restrooms and from the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
In an effort to control this public health nightmare in Harrisburg, Capital Region Water in October 2020 began charging fees to all property owners who own parking lots, driveways, roofs and other “impervious surfaces” in the city that contribute to the runoff and overflow problem.
The fee is designed to raise more than $5 million a year to fix Harrisburg’s outdated and leaking combined sewer and stormwater system. Everyone in the city is required to contribute to this stormwater tax, even senior homeowners, small business owners, and churches.
Everyone pays their fair share except the state government. Last year, Pennsylvania approved a $40 billion annual budget for the State Office Complex in Harrisburg, but it refuses to give even a penny to fix Harrisburg’s sewage overflow problems. , including the State Office Complex.
Each month for the past 15 months, Capital Region Water has billed the state $32,246 (equivalent to $386,956 per year) in impermeable surface fees for the 5.4 million square feet of bitumen, roofs and other impervious surfaces belonging to the state government in Harrisburg. .
But while most average people have paid those bills, the state refuses. Pennsylvania officials make the legalistic argument that the state shouldn’t have to pay, because they claim the stormwater charge is a tax, not a fee, and the state government doesn’t pay no taxes. But that doesn’t make sense, because Pennsylvania pays Capital Region Water other monthly fees without complaint, including water and sewer services — but not stormwater?
Large sections of Harrisburg are literally owned by the state. But the state refuses to approve any subsidy for the cost of fixing the city’s sewage overflow problem – which Capital Region Water estimated at $315 million over 20 years. The state has offered loans, but the borrowed money will have to be repaid, which will only increase the financial burden on the city’s struggling taxpayers, more than a quarter of whom live below the poverty line and whose two-thirds are black or Latino.
Other states are much more generous about cleaning up their capitals. Virginia, for example, last July approved $50 million in state grants to help address sewage and stormwater overflow issues in its capital, Richmond, as well as an additional $50 million to solve combined sewage overflow problems in Alexandria and $25 million for Lynchburg.
Unlike Pennsylvania, the federal government has no problem paying DC Water an “impermeable surface” fee (about $22 million a year) to help stop sewage and stormwater overflows at Washington, including from the US Capitol. In fact, Congress has approved $277 million in grants to help build new tunnels and take other steps to catch and deal with overflows.
So why doesn’t Pennsylvania take the same pride in its capital’s waterfront? Harrisburg has a beautiful boardwalk along the Susquehanna River. But the spectacular views and opportunities for fishing, kayaking and other recreation are marred by the smell of sewage. Harrisburg’s public beach at City Island Park is closed due to high levels of fecal bacteria.
By contrast, in downtown Washington D.C., Boston, and other cities, waterfront restaurants and public recreation on the water have flourished as the government has invested in a fundamental part of civilized living: keeping raw human waste out of public waterways.
Pennsylvania’s refusal to reduce its own pollution in its own capital city by not paying stormwater rates like any local homeowner is deplorable. Certainly, Pennsylvania’s financial and moral obligation to protect its state properties from Third World sanitary conditions extends far beyond this modest amount. But by shirking its responsibility to at least pay stormwater fees, the state is slapping all business owners and residents who pay the fees.
It’s high time that Pennsylvania not only pays its fair share of stormwater costs and infrastructure improvements in Harrisburg, but – more broadly – invests in clean water, public health and self-respect like its neighbors.
Ted Evgeniadis is the Lower Susquehanna River Guardian.
Tom Pelton is director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project