KEYSER -- Keyser residents will not get hit as hard with higher sewage rates to pay for the city's new treatment plant, but residents of New Creek will pay a lot more than the city had proposed under a ruling issued this week by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.

By Richard Kerns
rkerns@newstribune.info
Tribune Staff Writer
KEYSER -- Keyser residents will not get hit as hard with higher sewage rates to pay for the city's new treatment plant, but residents of New Creek will pay a lot more than the city had proposed under a ruling issued this week by the West Virginia Public Service Commission.
The city had proposed a 96 percent across-the-board rate hike to pay the local portion of the new $30 million sewage plant. Under the decision by Administrative Law Judge Keith George, Keyser residents will see a 76 percent increase, while residents of New Creek – whose sewage is treated at the city plant – will see a rate hike of 192 percent.
Residents of McCoole, Md., who also use the plant, will be subject to a 64 percent increase.
The new rates will not take effect until substantial completion of the new plant, which is being built to comply with federal mandates tied to the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. The new plant is expected to be online by January, 2016, at which point the increases will take effect.
Officials with the New Creek Public Service District were unavailable for comment Friday afternoon.
In issuing his findings, George acknowledged the burden that the new plant will place on its users, however, he said the city had no choice but to build the facility, and increase rates to pay off the long-term loans that will cover the local portion of the project cost. About $10 million of the plant cost is being funded through state grants.
“The Utility (Keyser) has no choice,” George wrote. “It must comply with the environmental standards that the Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have developed to help improve the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.”
George, who conducted the May 20 public hearing in Keyser on the rate increase, said failure to build the plant would leave the city “subject to fines and quite possibly lawsuits.”
The steep rate increase being passed on to New Creek is a direct result of the amount of sewage flow that homes and businesses in that area are sending to the plant on Waxler Road. More than just wastewater from laundry, baths and commodes, though, the system is also sending millions of gallons a month to the plant through inflow and infiltration, or “I&I,” -- storm water that enters the system during heavy rains through leaking underground lines, sump pumps and gutters tied into the system.
Up until now, New Creek has been billed each month based on the amount of water Keyser sold the community. However, that failed to take into account the huge volumes of I&I, thus giving New Creek a significant break over the true cost of treating its sewage flow.
According to George's report, the current charges for New Creek based on water sales are about 67,000 gallons per day, but PSC staff estimated the daily flow is actually closer to 196,000 gallons, or nearly triple the billed amount.
While they face an enormous increase in their sewage costs, it could have been worse for New Creek residents except for a policy the PSC employs to prevent “rate shock” from abrupt and severe increases. If New Creek were billed for its actual flow and if the costs of the new plant were equally and evenly spread throughout the entire system, New Creek would have been subject to an increase of 318 percent rather than 192 percent.
“Staff did not use the rates because of concerns of rate shock regarding New Creek ... ,” George wrote. “Staff has applied an internal policy trying to limit rate increases for one class of customers to two-times the overall rate increase which drove the recommendation that New Creek rates be increased no more than 192% in this proceeding.”
The new rates approved by the PSC do not reflect Keyser's use of a new flow meter to measure the actual flow of sewage to the city plant. For the time being, New Creek will continue to be billed based on water sales to the community. The city must seek permission from the PSC to use the flow meter to assess sewage charges, which will likely result in another big rate increase for the community.