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TV Smart Talk - The Sinkhole Solution

Written by Nell McCormack Abom | Jan 9, 2013 12:18 PM

Harrisburg's gaping sinkhole on North Fourth Street is a huge reminder of the peril facing residents in cities and towns across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

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Thousands of miles of underground pipes that carry water, gas and sewage throughout our communities are more than 100 years old. On top of that, Pennsylvania’s geology is susceptible to erosion. It is, in short, a multi-billion-dollar and multi-layered problem that's crippling cash-strapped communities. We’ll explore the depths of Pennsylvania’s sinkhole situation and what to do about it on Smart Talk, Thursday night at 8 on witf TV.  Join the conversation!

Freshman State House Representative Patty Kim, a Democrat from the city of Harrisburg, will join the panel. She appeared on Radio Smart Talk earlier this week and said Harrisburg's sinkholes are "like a time bomb."  Residents of the 2100 block of N. Fourth Street were without water and sewer service for more than a week after a water main broke and a massive pit opened in the middle of the street. More than 40 steel plates cover smaller sinkholes across the city. In Lebanon County, residents of Palmyra have struggled for years with disruption caused by inadequate stormwater pipes and cavernous sinkholes.  William Kochanov, a senior geologist at the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, will talk about the geology of Central PA and why limestone is a major contributing factor to the prevalence of these sinkholes.

Pennsylvania American Water Company is the largest regulated water utility in the Commonwealth. It provides water and wastewater services to more than two million Pennsylvanians in 390 communities. Kathy Pape, president of PAWC, will share her insights on the complexity of fixing Pennsylvania’s aging water infrastructure. She gained even more perspective on the issue after serving on former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure Task Force in 2008.  The Task Force found that Pennsylvania had a $36.5 billion shortfall in capital repairs and upgrades needed for water and wastewater systems over the next 20 years.

Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Wayne Gardner also is a member of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (Natural) Gas Pipeline Safety Standards Committee.  Pennsylvania communities have experienced disastrous gas-leak explosions that have claimed lives and destroyed property.  He will share his expertise with us.

At the center of the problem is how to pay for the fixes.  Other states like Georgia permit utilities to impose surcharges on customers' utility bills to fund quicker modernizations to their systems.  In 1997, Pennsylvania began allowing regulated water companies to enact a distribution system improvement charge.  The typical residential customer pays about $2.75 a year for the DSIC which helps fund modernization of water lines.  For example, 80 miles of main a year can be replaced instead of just 30 miles. Last February, Gov. Corbett signed into law Act 11 which allows regulated electric, natural gas distribution, and wastewater companies to impose a DSIC on their customers. According to the statute, the DSIC must be designed to provide for, "the timely recovery of the reasonable and prudent costs incurred to repair, improve or replace eligible property in order to ensure and maintain adequate, efficient, safe, reliable and reasonable services."

Here's the problem:  These laws do not affect municipal- and authority-owned utility systems.  The Harrisburg Authority operates the city's water system.  So, how can cities like Harrisburg, already struggling with potential bankruptcy and heavy debt, fix their public water systems?  Would their residents be willing and able to pay more for safer gas, sewer and water lines, and if so, how much more?  We welcome your comments.  Call in live to 1-800-729-7532, email, post a comment to this article, or to Facebook or Twitter.

(This article has been updated to include Mr. Kochanov's appearance on the panel.)


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