Most of the time, the sprawling 150-acre Rebitch farmland located just outside of Delmont, 40 minutes east of Pittsburgh, is peaceful and serene. But at times of heavy rainfall, the Rebitch family waits apprehensively to see what the pressure brewing beneath the ground will unleash onto their property.
Six manholes dotting the family’s land periodically overflow with stormwater and raw, untreated material. The manholes, part of Delmont Borough’s sanitary sewage system, release sewage that seeps into the soil. Often, it will directly enter the adjacent Beaver Run Creek, where people go fishing for trout and other coldwater fish species.
And that creek feeds the Beaver Run Reservoir, a public drinking water supply.
The problem, which affects the public drinking water supply, has been going on for approximately twenty years. News crews came and left. But sewage, when it rains, continues to flow. And it’s causing some real tension in the community.
“You’ve got people flushing their condoms down the toilet, you’ve got condoms coming onto the property, and all kinds of human waste,” Ed Rebitch said. Rebitch, 58, remembers farming sweet corn and making hay on the farmland, which his grandparents purchased in the 1920s.
Now, the land is part of the Rock Springs Trust, a holding trust the family established to keep the land undeveloped and in its prime state. The repeated sewage overflow and flooding have rendered large portions of the Rebitches' property useless for farming.
“The grasses have changed, from lush pastureland to that of wetlands - grasses which you would see in an area that’s more swamplike,” Rebitch said.
Sometimes, the pressure of the sewage water is so extreme it pushes off the heavy manhole lid.
According to Cynthia Walter, who has a Ph.D. in biology and has studied water pollution for over 25 years, the situation is cause for concern.
“Any municipality that allows raw sewage to escape sewer pipes and arrive on the surface and then also, enter the drinking water supply… is harming their own citizens because of all that surface sewage,” Walter, who now teaches biology at St. Vincent College, said.
Over the years, Ed Rebitch and his family have become increasingly invested in raising awareness about the sewage overflows and demanding authorities to resolve the situation. They’ve consistently attended Delmont Borough Council meetings to voice their concerns, and have created a website and Facebook page about the problem. But for the most part, members of the Rebitch family feel as though their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
Delmont Council Solicitor Daniel Hewitt said that in the 17 years he’s served on the council, the borough has actively worked on its sanitary sewage system.
“We are working to continue forward with things that we believe will help fix this problem,” Hewitt said in an interview with PublicSource.
To the surface
Earlier this month, the Rebitch family put up a billboard on Route 66 decrying the sewage situation. To fund the billboard, they collected approximately $1,000 from about ten different community members, all of whom were concerned about the issue. Because it was a community service issue, he said the billboard cost less to rent than it would for commercial purposes.
Despite their concern, none of the contributors, except for the Rebitch family, wanted to speak to PublicSource on record about the problem.
The decision to put up such a provocative billboard was hard, Rebitch said, since he considers several council members his friends.
“It’s hard to do this, to take it to this extreme. But they leave us no choice. They made us take this action,” he said.
Ed Rebitch’s daughter Sarah Rebitch, 26, said the Facebook page has experienced more activity since the billboard went up.
Beaver Run Creek’s final destination is the Beaver Run Reservoir, one of Westmoreland County’s primary drinking water supplies. Water from the reservoir is treated at the George Sweeney Treatment Plant, which isn’t properly equipped to process and treat sewage. Beaver Run Reservoir supplies about 140,000 people with drinking water, according to a 2002 assessment by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The Rebitch family members get their water from a private well, and thus are not, in fact, consumers of water from the Beaver Run Reservoir. They say they are mainly concerned for the many community members who do obtain their drinking water from there.
The problem has been going on since Sarah, their youngest child, was small, Rebitch said.
‘The sewage issue’ lurks in Delmont
Although the Rebitches say not enough has been done to rectify Delmont’s sewage system, there’s no question that ‘the sewage issue’ is on the minds of many Delmont community members.
Tensions were high surrounding the topic during the public comment portion of Delmont Borough Council’s most recent monthly meeting held on May 9.
When the PublicSource reporter during the citizens’ comment period asked council members how concerned they were about the length of time that raw sewage has been entering the Beaver Run Reservoir, solicitor Daniel Hewitt strongly recommended that no one on the council should respond to the question.
“This is a time of public comment. This is not particularly a time of public questions. I mean, by definition under state law. OK?” Hewitt said.
He clarified that although citizens are always invited to ask questions during the public comment portion of the meeting, council members are not required under state law to respond.
“I don’t think anyone has belittled the importance of addressing sewage problems throughout Delmont,” Hewitt told PublicSource during the meeting, adding that everyone on the council has worked on Delmont sewage issues “from time to time.”
Julie Rebitch, Ed’s wife, was in attendance and posed a question, which was met with a similarly defensive response from Hewitt before Dave Weber, who serves on the Sewage committee, responded to her.
Rebitch asked about the Borough’s recent decision in April to tie down one of the manhole covers, thereby securing it from being lifted up by the force of the sewage. She said “logic and physics tell us” that if the sewage does not emerge from that manhole, it will come out somewhere else.
“I’m an engineer, so I’m not totally stupid,” Weber said in response to her claim.
He said the DEP recommended the manhole be locked down, and that the Borough hopes that if inflow to the sewage system is reduced, the sewage will not discharge elsewhere along the line. He agreed with Julie Rebitch’s sentiment that preventing raw sewage from entering the community’s municipal water source should be a priority.
At the start of the meeting, Bob Burton, 81, slowly rose to his feet and approached the front of the room to distribute copies of a recent Tribune-Review article to each council member. The article was about the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority’s recent decision to grant $2 million to Unity Township to improve and expand its storm sewers.
Burton lives in the housing development located directly above the valley where the Rebitch family lives. He said that when he and his wife purchased their house five years ago, they didn’t realize the land was originally slated to be a stormwater retention facility.
“I have a piece of property next to my house that could be a retention facility. It would normally retain the water that goes down the steep hill,” Burton said, addressing the council.
The retention facility would likely help to diminish the high levels of stormwater runoff entering the valley.
Rebitch, who said she hadn’t ever spoken to Burton before that evening, thanked him for speaking up about the topic.
Tracking our water through the treatment process
The Rebitches' property is technically situated in Salem Township, about 300 acres down the road from Delmont proper. “Down” is the correct term to use: the property is located in a deep valley, beneath the small town of Delmont, at the lowest point of the sewage system. So eventually, all of Delmont’s stormwater runoff - from driveways, sidewalks, roofs and parking lots - makes its way down into that valley.
Besides often entering the stream directly, the excessive stormwater has, over time, weakened the stream bed, to the point that the sewage lines located beneath the surface have been exposed. These sewage lines transport sewage from the Cramer Pump Station, which is located just off the Rebitch property, to the sanitary sewage treatment plant operated by Franklin Township Municipal Sanitary Authority.
But several vulnerabilities in the force main line have resulted in untreated sewage being released directly into the water table.
The iron pipe that transports the sewage is vulnerable for two main reasons. First of all, it is old, having been initially designed in the mid-1980s to transport a lower volume of sewage. Secondly, the clay soil surrounding the pipe is acidic, and corrodes the pipe itself.
Water from the Beaver Run Reservoir is transported to the George R. Sweeney Treatment Plant, which is designed to treat water that’s already relatively clean.
Walter said harmful chemicals that are found in raw sewage get through drinking water treatment processes.
“The [Sweeney] treatment plant is designed to take nearly clean water, and make it absolutely clean - and free us of that bacteria - so when you can get it out of your tap, it’s really excellent water,” Walter said.
Conversely, sanitary sewage treatment plants - like the one in Franklin Township - are designed to treat the water that leaves our houses via toilets and sinks. These separate, totally distinct facilities are equipped to capture a huge amount of bacteria, including viruses that could be pathogenic - and, to some extent, antibiotics and hormones. From there, the treated water is discharged into streams and lakes.
Walter cited a study, published in a 2009 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, that screened 19 drinking water treatment plants for a range of pharmaceuticals and organic contaminants. Out of the 19, only two facilities were found to be clear. These two facilities were fed by protected reservoirs with no sewage or recreation.
According to Delmont councilman David Weber, a retired electrical engineer who serves on the sewage committee, the issue is important to the council, and they’re working to resolve it. Weber has only been on the council for less than a year, but he’s running for re-election this year in hopes that he can continue working on the sewage issue.
“To the best of our ability, we’re chasing this down methodically,” Weber said.
He cited dye testing and smoke testing as methods the borough has used to see where leaks are occurring in the sewage system. Some of the repair work that’s been done in the past has been documented, and some has not.
“What I’m trying to bring to the table with my experience is the methodological approach, and the documentation piece of it. Because these guys, our maintenance guys, have been doing a lot of things, but if you don’t document it, it’s like anything else, it didn’t happen,” Weber said.
Above all, Weber said the goal is to reduce the level of inflow and infiltration (I&I) entering the sewage system. The two terms are closely related, and it’s often difficult to distinguish them, but respectively, inflow refers to stormwater entering a system through direct connections: roof drains, downspouts, driveway drains and sump pumps. Infiltration refers to groundwater entering the system through leaks or cracks in sewage pipes.
Ultimately, the most effective way to stop the sewage overflows would be to replace the entire force main line beneath the Rebitch family’s property. That pipe is between 1,100-1,300 feet long, and would be quite an undertaking, according to Weber.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection could issue a consent order that would require the borough to make significant updates to the system under federal or state law. Hewitt said the DEP has not, as of yet, been reprimanding Delmont for the system’s faults, or pressuring the borough in any way to fix them.
If the DEP does not put any official pressure on a municipality to fix a problem like this, a small community without a lot of financial resources, like Delmont, can take action in other ways. An entity like the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (PENNVEST), or the Commonwealth Financing Authority, could provide grant funding for an environmental project to update the sewage system.
Why no fix yet?
To date, the DEP has not issued a consent order to Delmont that would require it to upgrade the sewage system under federal or state law.
Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator for the DEP’s Southwest Regional Office, said the agency is “aware that a manhole that is part of Delmont’s sanitary sewer system has experienced overflows.” She said the department has discussed the issue with Delmont, and that Delmont is currently seeking to replace the force main.
But it’s actually six manholes, not just one, that have experienced overflows. And Delmont Council told Ed Rebitch they are not able to invest in more than a short-term plan, of five or ten years, he said.
“We think that the DEP has been specifically turning a blind eye to it, because Delmont Borough is a small community and we don’t have deep pockets,” Julie Rebitch said.
Solicitor Hewitt agreed that lack of funding is a barrier, telling PublicSource in an interview that if the borough council had sufficient money to spend to fix the problem, it would.
And Burton, the man who unknowingly purchased his home on land originally intended for stormwater retention, also said the problem is fundamentally a question of money.
But Rebitch, who’s worked as a Certified Public Accountant since 1985, said he’s aware of several funding opportunities that could help Delmont to upgrade its sewage system. PENNVEST, the entity that granted Unity Township $2 million to fix a similar issue, accepts funding applications year-round for sewage, stormwater and drinking water projects.
To receive funding, applicants must be “shovel-ready,” Rebitch says, or ready to launch head-first into the proposed project.
“They have to have a plan in place,” Rebitch said. “The engineering has to be done. That’s why they need to get moving on it.”
Weber said that the council is working with the DEP to devise a solution, and that the group takes the problem seriously. He also added: “I don’t want to minimize this… but sewage overflows are kind of a fact of life. Nobody likes them,” Weber said. “Until we can find a way to mitigate it, that’s gonna happen.”
According to Walter, Pennsylvanians tend to take their running water supply, which consists of 86,000 miles of streams and rivers, for granted. The state is unique in that it has more running water than many other places - more than any other state in the U.S., apart from Alaska.
“Because we live close to it here in Pennsylvania, we think it’s common, we think it’s abundant, and we think it’ll always run clear,” Walter said. “And that is a myth that we are unfortunately waking up to.”
Delmont Borough Council meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.
PublicSource Interactives & Design Editor Natasha Khan built the graphic for this story.
Molly Duerig is a freelance journalist who also manages the Filmmakers Youth Media program at Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.