Lycoming County's years-long effort to deal with federal pollution standards designed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay was showcased Monday as Shawn M. Garvin, administrator for the EPA's mid-Atlantic Region spent several hours touring the county.
Garvin, who oversees a region that includes Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and West Virginia, visited the Borough of Montgomery's wastewater treatment plant and a Clinton Township farm where nutrient credits have been generated through the use of pollution-reducing conservation practices.
Prior to the tour, Commissioner Jeff C. Wheeland said he met Garvin at a meeting in Washington D.C. of the Local Government Advisory Committee on the Chesapeake Bay.
CRAIG S. McKIBBEN JR./Sun-Gazette
Mike Sherman, left, who runs a third-generation family farm, Sherman Beef Cattle on Brouse Road in Montgomery, shakes hands with Shawn M. Garvin, Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator for the Mid-Atlantic Region, following a tour of Sherman’s farm Monday afternoon. Sherman’s farm was the culmination of a tour of several area facilities showcasing local Chesapeake Bay Clean-Up Initiative efforts.
Wheeland said he invited Garvin to Williamsport. Though he expected no response to the invitation, he was surprised to be called about two weeks later by Garvin's staff, who wanted to arrange a tour of the county.
Wheeland said he wanted the EPA to see the cost county residents have had to bear due to the bay cleanup efforts. He also wanted the agency to see, first-hand, what the county collectively is doing to help clean up the bay.
Hosted by Megan Lehman, environmental planner for the county Department of Planning and Community Development, the tour began with a gathering in the county commissioners' conference room at the Executive Plaza.
Following a drive-by of the City of Williamsport's central wastewater treatment plant, where extensive upgrades are being done to meet bay cleanup requirements, the group traveled to the Montgomery treatment plant.
The plant is in disrepair and does not meet pollution standards, according to Eric Moore, executive director of the West Branch Regional Authority. It also is in a flood plain and has sustained damage over the years due to flooding, he said.
Because of that, the authority is planning to build a regional treatment plant to provide service not only to the Montgomery area, but the Borough of Muncy, which also has an outdated treatment plant, Moore said.
The new plant, which will be off Route 405 in the township, will be out of the 500-year flood plain, Moore said.
According to Moore, design work for the regional plant is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Construction should begin next spring and be completed by late 2014 or early 2015, he said.
During the plant tour, William Kelly, deputy director of the county planning department, discussed to county's work toward meeting bay cleanup requirements. The work began in 2008 when the county decided a regional approach was needed to meet those requirements, Kelly said.
Stakeholders including the business community, agriculture, municipal leaders, and state and county agencies, got together to work out viable solutions, he said.
Some area municipalities were wrestling with decrepit sewage collection systems that, while having nothing to do with the bay cleanup itself, had to be addressed at the same time as the upgrades to the treatment plants, he said.
That is when the county decided to explore the creation of a nutrient credit trading program to provide treatment plants with an alternative to physical treatment plant upgrades, he said.
Nutrient credits buy time for treatment plant operators working to build new plants or upgrade old ones to comply with bay cleanup requirements, said Christine Weigle, executive director of the county Water and Sewer Authority and co-chair of a county work group focusing on solutions for sewage treatment plants.
The group visited the Clinton Township farm of Michael Sherman, who operates a beef cattle operation that employs most of the conservation practices that generates nutrient credits.
That operation includes a manure management system, stream bank fencing to keep cattle out of a nearby stream, a riparian buffer, off stream watering, rotational grazing, no-till planting and stormwater management, Sherman said.
"This is the county's model farm," said Mark Davidson, county Conservation District manager. "Every (conservation practice) you can do, Mike has done here."
The stream fencing and riparian buffer has been particularly successful in turning a small section of stream considered to be dead into a thriving aquatic community that includes species of trout, Sherman said.
Not only that, but the cattle have benefited from improved health, he said.
The county has a growing number of farmers interested in using conservation practices that will create nutrient credits. However, many local officials on the tour said they hoped the EPA will use incentives, rather than force, to get more farmers to buy into the program.
They also urged Garvin and his agency to consider interstate nutrient credit trading to allow Pennsylvania farmers to sell their credits to treatment plants in other states in the bay watershed.
"We'd like to see Pennsylvania become a net exporter of credits," Lehman said.
Weigle said some people do not believe a credit trading program can work.
"We want to prove them wrong," she said.
Garvin said that while cleaning up the bay is an objective of the agency, the most obvious impact of good conservation practices is improved water quality on local waterways.