UNION COUNTY — As of Oct. 1, the 11 Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority member towns could have a surprise coming in the mail – fines for going over their allotted flow rights.
Although running water for a shower, washing dishes or even flushing the toilet may be an unconscious habit that residents in Springfield, Kenilworth, Roselle Park, Cranford, Westfield, Garwood, Clark, Rahway and Woodbridge take for granted, it also can be an expensive one.
In October RVSA is taking off the gloves and enforcing a 1995 contract that will clamp down on municipalities like Springfield, who last month alone managed to go over their allotted sewerage flow rights 30 times, and 112 days so far since October, 2013. The metering year begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30 the following year.
There are other flow rights offenders, such as Clark, who went over by four days in May, and 10 times since October. Rahway went over two days in May, and nine since the new metering year began. Cranford also abuses its flow rights, going above its allowable flow two days in May and eight times since October.
Although Kenilworth is a small municipality of 7,675 people, the borough also exceeded their flow rights two days in May, and three total since the metering year began. Roselle Park went over one day in May and two times since October.
In fact, only one town, Mountainside, did not go over their flow rights in May, or at all since October.
RVSA Executive Director Jim Meehan feels strongly that the 11 member towns have to be accountable for exceeding their flow rights. The original contract, which was determined 63 years ago and again revisited in 1995 when the contract was updated, spelled this all out.
The problem, he said, is the member towns are not doing anything to address aging sewer pipes that storm waters infiltrate and thereby cause an increase in flow. New development, increased business or industry can also increase flow significantly.
RVSA is an autonomous agency that owns and operates the sewer system which routes wastewater to the treatment facility in Rahway. RVSA currently serves more than 250,000 residents and 3,500 industrial and commercial customers in central New Jersey, but it costs money for this plant to operate. It is also costly when towns exceed their flow rights and never have to pay for that overage.
Back in 1928, RVSA was created by the communities of Springfield, Kenilworth, Roselle Park, Cranford, Westfield, Garwood Clark, Rahway and Woodbridge, which joined forces to handle wastewater sewage in a cost effective regional system called the Rahway Valley Joint Meeting.
It is governed by a board of commissioners, which includes one representative from each member municipality. The day-to-day operations are handled by a full-time executive director and staff of more than 50 employees.
The member towns paid for and constructed a treatment plant in Rahway and 18.5 miles of pipeline ranging in size from 15-inch pipe diameter up to 72 inches in diameter. This sewer system was designed to collect wastewater and eventually route it to the Rahway plant.
Based on the size of the town, each of the municipalities was granted the right to use a portion of that capacity based on the number of people in the community and amount contributed to the construction of the plant. This established the original flow rights.
In 1951 the member municipalities entered into a new agreement creating RVSA. The 1951 agreement, revised again in 1995, detailed the right for member towns to use the system, allocating the cost of operating, maintaining, repairing and improving the facilities to each of the member municipalities.
Depending on population, each town had to pay a calculated fee for these “flow rights,” and they were not supposed to go over this number. There were fines and extra fees written into this contract to ensure member towns paid for the flow they used.
Although wastewater is 99.9 percent water, including waste from homes, businesses and industrial sites, the other 0.1 percent consists of materials such as human waste, food scraps, oil and grease, and debris.
This wastewater travels through various municipal sewer systems, with the help of gravity and pumping stations, where it then flows into RVSA’s main trunk sewer line. The wastewater then is carried to the treatment plant in Rahway.
On average the RVSA plant treats 30 million gallons of wastewater a day, but it can accommodate a maximum daily peak flow of up to 105 million gallons.
After treatment, the wastewater, which RVSA Executive Director Jim Meehan described in a recent industry magazine article as clean as tap water, is released into the Arthur Kill. The “sludge,” or waste by-products, are then treated and dried to 98 percent solids.
User charges for this service are determined through a formula based on use of the system. And this is where the problem begins.
The sewers that carry wastewater to the Rahway plant are aging, with most 50- to 60-years-old. While the majority of member towns manage to exceed their flow rights to a certain degree, towns like Springfield have overages nearly every day.
Other towns, such as Clark, have a year when they have excessive overages, such as during the 2013 metering year when this municipality went over its flow rights 41 days, according to Flow Rights Utilization charts supplied by RVSA Staff Engineer John Buonocore.
In an interview with LocalSource last week, Meehan and Buonocore explained that excessive daily overages, such as Springfield, continue to incur, and eventually add up to “millions and millions of gallons in a metering year.”
Other member towns, they said, only exceed their flow rights occasionally and by a small amount compared to Springfield, which Meehan said could be the result of several issues.
Meehan and Buonocore explained that many, if not most, of the sewer pipes in member municipalities have pipes that are more than 50-years-old. Meehan said because these pipes are old, they have cracks and fissures which allow storm water to seep into the system. This storm water then travels through the pipes to the plant where it is treated like wastewater. This in turn increases the flow from a municipality when it is measured by a series of meters that monitor use.
Meehan explained that while the plant has made $178 million in upgrades at no cost to member towns, raising the flow rights of towns is not an option.
At a meeting held in March, the subject of towns exceeding their flow rights came up. Alan Chin, who represents Westfield, inquired whether town flow rights could be raised since the plant had been upgraded and now has the capacity of 105 million gallons a day. Dennis Estis, the RVSA general counsel from Greenbaum, Rowe Smith and Davis, explained this was not possible.
Estis said the simple answer was “no” because flow rights are not based on the ability of the plant to treat a certain amount of flow. It is based on the amount of flow that can go through each of the spurs that tie into the trunk line leading to the plant.
While Estis felt there were several options, including increasing flow rights to member towns by 10 percent, such an action would require a unanimous approval by all 11 member towns because it would change the 1995 agreement.
“We do not think is a good idea since not all the pipes have greater capacity,” Estis said.
Another idea was to add nine meters where meters are not present to identify which leg of the system has continual exceedances.
“We can then identify, for the benefit of the municipalities, where the problems are and where work on municipality lines need to be done,” said the RVSA attorney.
A third possibility, Estis said, was to do what RVSA did in the early 1990s and 2000s and start holding hearings.
“There are municipalities that are just ignoring the fact that they are constantly exceeding their flow rights and not taking any remedial action. These municipalities need to purchase flow rights from one of the municipalities that have excess flow rights to sell or we need to assess them accordingly,” the attorney said.
Attilio Venturo, the representative from Roselle Park, felt municipalities exceeding their flow rights needed to address the individual problems. He pointed out that many homes have sump pumps tied into the system illegally and that issue needs to be addressed.
Buonocore, who attended this meeting, said he felt the authority should start complying with the 1995 agreement 100 percent and go back to holding hearings for municipalities who are non-compliant.
Not everyone agreed with this, including the Clark representative, Frank Mazzarella. He felt that even though RVSA upgraded their plant, “we are still holding the communities hostage.”
Estis stressed that RVSA had decided not to hold hearings while the plant was undergoing an upgrade, but that did not mean Westfield did not have the option of going to court and saying Springfield is exceeding its flow rights and ask the court to “force the authority to undertake hearings and comply with the agreement.”
“There are municipalities who may not go along with changing the agreement and say they bought flow rights and you are now using my share and would like to be paid for them accordingly,” the RVSA attorney said.
Cranford representative Mark Dugan felt the board had the ability to fix the problem among themselves without amending the 1995 agreement, noting that the towns can buy additional flow rights.
“So what you are doing by changing the agreement is benefiting the people who didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Dugan told the board, adding that while he did not know if Cranford exceeded their flow rights, but he felt RVSA would be penalizing those who did what they were supposed to do and “spreading the wealth among those who didn’t do what they were supposed to do.”
“If a town like Springfield needs more flow rights, they can acquire them from a town that has them to sell,” he added, mentioning that “this requires Springfield to spend money, which will correct their problem and it’s not at the expense of everyone else.”
Springfield was the general topic of conversation during this discussion because they are the biggest offender of going over their flow rights.
The problem is continual, according to Meehan and Buonocore, who in a conference call with LocalSource agreed it is time to get back to the reason the 1995 contract was drafted in the first place.
“We need to get back on track, “ Buonocore said, mentioning that otherwise, you end up with towns like Springfield that continually and habitually violate their flow rights “on a daily basis,” and do nothing about it.
Meehan, while anxious to solve the problem, admitted that aging infrastructure is a problem but the member towns have to take responsibility for that and do something.
“Infiltration of storm water through cracks and fissures is a big problem but we are trying to encourage towns to do something about that by replacing these pipes or at least relining them,” Meehan said.
The RVSA executive director also noted that if a town has excessive growth and building, that also can contribute heavily to flow rights being exceeded.
“The bottom line is – if you exceed your flow rights, it’s a flow right violation,” he said, adding that violators should have been fined for this in the past.
Buonocore explained that if a municipality exceeds its flow rights for any part of ten separate days during a measuring year, the 1995 agreement established a procedure for holding hearings so a municipality can present evidence disputing the violation.
“As part of these hearings, the agreement provides a formula to determine and assess a rental charge that is paid by the town for violating their flow rights,” the staff engineer explained.
“Essentially, the municipality that is exceeding its flow right is using capacity within the pipe that belongs to the other members and is therefore required to pay for that usage,” Buonocore added.
If one of the towns disputes that they have violated their flow rights, the RVSA staff engineer said the authority has excellent ways of monitoring flow usage.
There are approximately 21 flow meters throughout the system that are located so the flow entering and leaving each town is measured and reported to RVSA in 15-minute intervals.