Officials, families at odds over extension of waterlines

(Published Aug. 1, 2010 in The Indiana Gazette)

BRUSH VALLEY — At least once a week, Mario Alexander drives a truck into Homer City to haul water back to his cistern. He’s been making the trip for five years, ever since his well went bad.

Only these days, he can almost see the municipal waterline that ends less than 100 feet from his house — a line he can’t get extended up the hill for his family or for the seven other families who live on Route 56 between the Route 954 intersection and the Village of Waterman.

“I’m beside myself at this point,” Alexander said. “This is bizarre.”

Coming from the west, the Indiana County Municipal Services Authority provides services through Waterman. And Highridge Water Authority recently completed a project that brought water through Brush Valley Township, to the Route 954 and Route 56 intersection.

There’s one mile and eight families between the two water lines.

But George Sulkosky, executive director of the Highridge Water Authority, said every project has to set an endpoint and that it was too expensive at the time of the Brush Valley project to add another mile of pipe for just eight families.

“There’s a lot of things that go into this. We have to look into (whether it) is feasible economically to extend the project to here or there,” Sulkosky said. “Funds are not unlimited … various portions of various townships were cut out of the project because of those things.”

The situation began sometime in 2005, when Alexander and his wife, Kristen, noticed their well water decreasing in both quantity and quality. They tried drilling six additional wells, but all were compromised by runoff from old coal mines, he said.

He dug a cistern, and started hauling his own water.

Other neighbors were also experiencing problems.

“Our water is so terrible,” said Mindy Harper, who lives further west on Route 56 with her husband, Jason, and their two children. “It was perfect until they started mining for coal.”

They’ve lived there for 20 or 25 years, she said. Now Britt Energy Resources, the company that has the coal mines in the area, chemically treats the water for them to use, she said.

Bill Marcus and his wife, Tracey, moved in four years ago. Their well water is undrinkable because of old mines underneath the property, he said.

“It’s horrible,” he said.

They also have their water treated, but even then they can’t drink it.

So when the neighbors heard Highridge was bringing water through Brush Valley Township and into Center Township, they were thrilled.

“We thought we were on that plan,” Harper said.

They signed petitions for a mandatory tap-in ordinance, necessary for Highridge to get state funds for the project. They filled out income verification forms and let the Department of Environmental Protection take water samples from their wells.

“It was a relief, we were finally going to get this taken care of,” Alexander said.

As the summer of 2009 ended, he said he decided to dig his supply line to the tap-in location before the ground froze. That’s when he learned the pipes were stopping at the bottom of his hill, at Budner’s Restaurant and the house across the road at Routes 954 and 56.

“I said, ‘What do you mean? A big portion of the money that was in this project was for people who had lost their water due to the mines,'” he said. Other neighbors were “all beside themselves,” he said.

At a meeting of all the neighbors, Sulkosky, Britt Energy representatives and state Rep. David Reed, R-Indiana, Alexander asked why they weren’t part of the project.

“Things just weren’t making sense to me,” he said.

At first, the meeting seemed to be successful. When Sulkosky said the cost of extending the waterline under Route 954 was prohibitive and that he didn’t have rights-of-way to take it along the south side of Route 56 instead, the Britt Energy representative said they could help secure access.

“(Sulkosky) said, ‘This sounds like a done deal,'” Marcus said.

Then, as far as the neighbors could tell, everything stopped.

“It went silent. No one was calling me, no one was asking questions,” Alexander said. “This is maddening to me.”

But Sulkosky said the plans for the waterline never went beyond Route 954.

LuAnn Zak of the county Office of Planning and Development said the families were not included in the original plans. She did an income verification study to determine if Center Township’s share of Community Development Block Grant Program money could be used to extend the project up the hill, but the families’ income levels were too high for that particular fund, she said.

“They then assumed because the income survey was done, (that they were part of the plan),” she said. She said she did not send letters to the families but told the supervisors they were ineligible.

“I guess that end of it just added to their confusion,” she said.

Sulkosky said he did what he could. With rights-of-way taken care of, he changed the plans to put the line on the south side of the highway so it would be easier to run the lines up the hill in a later project.

“We are now 12 miles closer to getting you water than we were before doing the project,” he said.

He said he also thought he had a deal with Britt Energy Resources to extend the line, but that fell through.

After the project ended, Highridge put out applications for additional grants to extend up the hill. Reed’s office has kept working, as well.

“We are working with Highridge to try to come up with a solution to the problem. We’re still involved in the process, so we’re hopeful that there will be some dollars made available,” said Jonathan Longwill, Reed’s chief of staff.

He said the Alexanders and their neighbors aren’t the only community trying to be added to the waterline.

“I do know it’s a very passionate situation,” Longwill said. “Our goal is to still find a way to get that extension to them.”

Angry and trying to draw attention to his lack of water, Alexander started putting huge signs along his driveway, facing Route 56. There are three up now. One adds up the grants and loans Highridge received for the project. “George Sulkosky, unfair to me,” it reads above the numbers. A second shows a wizard making something disappear and asks, “Where is the money?” and a third reads “Got water? We don’t … thanks for nothing.”

He said Reed’s office told him a few weeks ago there could be money available for the project, but that “a big part depends” on the signs coming down.

“I’ve heard ‘maybe’ since 2005 now,” Alexander said. “The signs are not coming down. If you get me city water, I’ll gladly take down my signs. Get me something in writing,” he said, adding he will continue to add new ones until he gets water.

But the signs are just aggravating Sulkosky, who said he doesn’t want to work with Alexander.

“He’s been very confrontational through this whole thing,” he said. “I don’t intend to have any dealings with the guy.”

If anything, Sulkosky said the signs hurt Alexander’s chances to get water.

“At any time my board can say, ‘The hell with him, we’re not going to do it.’ We’re getting tired of being slammed, we’re tired of being asked questions. Taking down his signs would be helpful,” he said.

Just recently, Sulkosky said he was told one of his grant applications had been approved for 80 percent of the costs; Highridge would be responsible for the other 20 percent.

A representative from the office of Congressman Bill Shuster, R-Hollidaysburg, confirmed Highridge’s application for money through the Army Corps of Engineers has been approved, but it will take time to process before the money is available.
But Sulkosky said he isn’t sure he wants to use it anytime soon.

“The only thing the authority has to decide is if they want to continue efforts to get water up there in light of (the signs). … I hate to be vindictive, (but) you wouldn’t believe how many people would see that, from not even our service area, people who know me,” he said. “The authority has to decide when they want to take advantage of it.”

Meanwhile, eight families on Route 56 don’t have drinkable water coming out of their faucets.

“We all want the water, we need it,” Marcus said.

And what’s most frustrating of all, according to Alexander, is that Highridge isn’t telling them what to do to get it.

“There’s been no help,” he said. “There’s been none of that.”

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