Approximately 50 Pleasantville residents attended a town hall meeting Tuesday night, a meeting in which they learned their sewer rates could potentially increase by 13 percent annually over the next five years.
As previously reported, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, under the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency, has implemented new regulations regarding pollutants coming into nearby waterways from the City of Pleasantville's wastewater treatment facility. The City, working with engineering firm Snyder and Associates, estimates that the cost to make desired improvements could cost $3.75 million. To pay for that, the City Council has examined options. Council members believe a gradual increase in sewer rates - proposed at 13 percent each year for the next five - would be the best option.
The DNR is demanding the improvements be completed by 2017. Jason Hartoff, with Snyder, said that there is no guarantee that, after Pleasantville makes facility improvements, that more will not be needed at that time.
"There is a guarantee for this next permit for the next five years," Hartoff said.
Prior to Tuesday night's meeting, Pleasantville City Manager Joe Mrstik, Rep. Greg Heartsill and members of Pleasantville's Public Works staff met with DNR Water Quality Chief Shelli Grapp and DNR Permitting Specialist Eric Wiklund this morning at City Hall. The City wanted to share data it has collected, regarding pollutants.
New permit limitations have drastically reduced the amount of pollutants that can be released. The waterway the DNR is concerned about is Coal Creek, which serves as habitat for fish. Limits for ammonia, for instance, under the previous permit were at 19 miligrams per liter in January. The new permit has dropped that to 5.2.
Pleasantville has already worked to address sewer issues, and made a $2 million investment to reline pipes in the City. Since doing this, the ammonia rate was below 1 from October through December, and as of February, had only reached 4.3.
Improvements being sought by the DNR would cost approximately $4 million.
"It's a substantial amount of money for the city," Mrstik said. "The data we have now? We're still meeting the limit."
Wiklund said, despite five months of data indicating that Pleasantville can meet the requirements without further investment, that the DNR is requiring a new system because lagoons are not expected to meet the permit guidelines.
"For the ammonia, it's really unlikely," Wiklund said. "We're not opposed to any additional monitoring you want to do."
"We'd be happy to have your numbers be the first one that did (meet requirements without the additional investment)," Grapp said.
Pleasantville is also showing improvements in reducing E-coli contamination. Wiklund said that when the City begins to address the further removal of ammonia, it will attract more bacteria and increase the level of E-coli contamination the City produces.
"The environment you create to remove ammonia is the environment bacteria like," Grapp added. Wiklund repeated that the DNR is operating under the assumption that Pleasantville's current wastewater treatment system will not work to stay within guidelines.
Grapp and Wiklund said the DNR has little leeway in setting these standards for Iowa. They are operating under the direction of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"It is their program," Grapp said. "They delegate it. We don't have much latitude."
If the DNR did not work to enforce the federal guidelines, the EPA would come in and make demands on communities like Pleasantville itself.
"Where does the EPA draw their authority?" Heartsill asked. Their authority comes from the Clean Water Act, but Heartsill continued to question how, Constitutionally, the federal government can force environmental regulations on a state. He believes this conflicts with the Tenth Amendment, which addresses states' rights.
"I'm a purist when it comes back to the Tenth Amendment," Heartsill said.
Heartsill was present again at Tuesday's meeting. No one had been able to give him a definitive answer regarding the EPA's authority.
Sen. Chuck Grassley said Wednesday that there is not much that can be done to fight the EPA. There are lawsuits pending against the EPA and its regulations, but he says there is no process in Congress to make changes to the EPA's decisions. A new law would be required and he is not confident one would be passed.
What he would like Congress to do would be to adopt a rule that says if an EPA regulation will have $100 million in impact, the regulation must seek Congressional approval. This is called the REINS Act.
But for now, the council has not made a decision about whether or not to make improvements. Snyder has advised the council to proceed with the rate increase, in anticipation of the changes becoming necessary.
The EPA's new regulations will not only impact Pleasantville, but many other small Iowa communities, including others in Marion County.
"Pleasantville's just the tip of the iceberg," Mrstik said.
"There will be more," Wickland added.
If further improvements are necessary for Pleasantville's sewer system, the costs are going to befall local businesses and residents. Mrstik is concerned not only about the additional costs will have on residents, but about the City's ability to grow and develop if sewer rates become excessive.
Jasper Street proposal
The town was also informed of the City's discussions about Jasper Street. This $3 million project would be broken down into phases, in an effort to provide a concrete thoroughfare through the town. Property owners along Jasper Street would be assessed a portion of the costs of the improvement.
Mayor Jason Anthony said nothing has been decided, but the discussion has begun, due to issues with flooding along the road. When discussing capital improvement projects with City staff, he and the council often hear Jasper Street mentioned first. The City does not want to act without input from the public.
"We wanted to invite you in here, to communicate," Anthony said. "Nothing has been decided, but we did want to open the doors and invite you in to this conversation."
In addition to paving, the project would include utility infrastructure improvement below the street. A source of funding could be Farm to Market roads, as Jasper turns into G-40. Requests for funds for this would have to be made through Marion County.
Residents were concerned about the proposed $7 million in improvements discussed. Concern about rising utility rates, the assessment and more was raised. The City could spread the costs of the Jasper Street improvements over the entire City if it desired to pay for the project with a general obligation bond.
"It's being considered," Hartoff said. "Every option is on the table."
No action was taken on Jasper Street or the sewer improvements. The public is encouraged to attend a regular city council meeting to raise more questions and to provide more input. The council meets the third Monday of every month. Mrstik said the sewer issue will likely be on the next agenda.
As we've been reporting, Marion County is considering transferring ownership of the Pleasantville Memorial Hall to the City of Pleasantville. Legion Representative Dennis Murphy reviewed for the crowd the many projects, and thousands of dollars that have been made to the hall in the last few years.
The City representatives expressed a willingness to take on ownership of the building, but only if the majority of residents who spoke to them would be in favor of it. Mrstik said the building is an emergency shelter and ensuring its availability in times of need would be a positive step. No action was taken.
"I thought (the meeting) was very productive," Councilor Aaron Hurt said. He encourages residents to contact him with their thoughts on these issues.