Front Royal council protests federal water rules

By Alex Bridges

Front Royal leaders have taken a stand against strict drinking water quality rules handed down by the federal government.

Whether Town Council’s action last week to not move forward on upgrades to the water plant could result in penalties or lead to adverse health effects remains unclear.

Town Council on Tuesday voted down a motion to pay $352,900 to Blacksburg firm Clough Harbour & Associates, which would design improvements to the water treatment plant. The action delays the process for plant upgrades. However, any councilman who voted in the majority can revive the motion at a future meeting, Town Manager Steven Burke said Friday.

Front Royal staff have been in contact with the Department of Health with regard to the delay in upgrading the plant, Burke said.

Council learned recently that the plant needs upgrades to abide by federal drinking water guidelines aimed at reducing cryptosporidium and chemical byproducts created by the treatment process. The $352,000 paid to the Blacksburg firm would cover the cost to design enhancements to the plant, such as an ultraviolet light system used to treat the water. Burke said that the design would help

The town receives its water from the Shenandoah River. However, tests have shown that pollution from non-point sources such as farms enters the river and the town must remove the waste before distributing the water for consumption.

Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker and Councilmen Bret W. Hrbek, Hollis L. Tharpe and Eugene R. Tewalt voted against the motion. Councilmen Thomas H. Sayre, Daryl L. Funk voted in favoron.

Tewalt criticized the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s Water Control Board and the federal government for handing mandates down to municipalities. He noted that local governments must spend money on water and sewer treatment plants to abide by the federal Chesapeake Bay Act.

“The problem I have with that is that nobody looks at the economy of the small communities or anyone else,” Tewalt said. “They only look at the federal government and whatever they say we have to jump through hoops and hurdles to do.”

Tewalt added that Front Royal and other communities should receive a reprieve from the federal mandates at least during the downturn in the economy.

Tharpe said, “I’m gonna stand right there with you and vote no on this also. Let’s take a stand.”

Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker, who made the initial motion to approve the expense, said Tewalt’s comments made him change his mind. Parker suggested the town leaders contact Front Royal’s federal representatives.

In response to questions from Sayre, Burke clarified that one set of regulations addresses the quality of drinking water. Another set of regulations addresses the levels of pollutants in wastewater released by the town that eventually makes its way to the Chesapeake Bay. The spending matter before council at its meeting on Tuesday related to the treatment of drinking water rather than the rules of the Chesapeake Bay Act.

“It’s more than just the Chesapeake Bay Act,” Sayre said. “I think there are some things that are going into our water that we have too high of a count that we have to eradicate.”

Tests indicate the possibility exists that the water could contain cryptosporidium, which can cause stomach-related illness in people with compromised immune systems, Burke said. The town’s water is safe to drink, he told council.

Hrbek interjected, “But not as safe as an EPA bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., says it should be.”

Burke responded, “But not as safe as the new requirements will have us be producing.”

Tewalt refuted the premise that the town needs to enhance its water treatment efforts because of an increase in livestock waste runoff into the river. Cattle farming has decreased over the years, Tewalt said. Tewalt further criticized federal officials, whom he called “educated idiots,” for handing down regulations.

Parker asked if any new requirements have been placed on residents who use wells. Burke explained that local health departments regulate well water through testing.

“Unfortunately, what you find with some of the unfunded mandates that Councilman Tewalt has alluded to, because we are a municipal entity that operates under the regulation of the state, we are an easy mark for those that develop these regulations to put forward,” Burke said.

After the 4-2 vote against the spending matter, Tewalt suggested that town officials contact Congressman Bob Goodlatte with regards to the federal regulations imposed on Front Royal. The councilman suggested they also contact the town’s representation in the Virginia General Assembly to see if legislators can help Front Royal at the state level.

Mayor Timothy W. Darr concurred with Tewalt and suggested the town send a letter to other municipalities along the bay’s tributaries to inform them of Front Royal’s situation. Darr recommended the town also contact the Virginia Municipal League and the Commission on Local Government and advise the agencies of the town’s issue.

“If we’re not going to do it and we’re going to try to stand firm here and let the federal government and the state government realize that they’re putting a $50 million burden on a small town of 15,000 people as Mr. Tewalt said in a matter of five or six years,” Darr said. “Then maybe the other localities are doing the same thing and maybe everybody feels that because it is the federal government they have to do it.”

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com