Harrisburg has received interest from at least two companies that have responded to a request for information, as the city ponders privatizing its water and sewer system.
Mayor Eric Papenfuse on Tuesday night said that, as of last week, two companies, which he declined to name, had responded to the city’s notice, meant to gauge possible interest in purchasing the system.
Interviews with those companies—and any others that met the Sept. 16 deadline—now will be scheduled, he said.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Papenfuse reiterated that this step was preliminary and that no decision had been reached on whether to privatize the system, which serves 20,300 water customers and a 17,000-connection wastewater system.
“We’re just in information-gathering, due diligence mode,” he said. “We’re not recommending or even close to recommending that we should explore the path to a sale. If that’s the path we go on, we would have many public meetings. It’s not even close to that time.”
Papenfuse added that he invited officials with the city’s current municipal utility, Capital Region Water, to sit in on the interviews. He said he wasn’t certain if they had decided to attend.
As in other recent meetings, several council members reacted skeptically to the possibility of privatizing the water/sewer system.
“I still have a lot of faith in the job that Capital Region Water is doing and concerns over a sale,” said Councilman Westburn Majors.
Recently, Harrisburg and CRW have taken heat over a report by a Washington, D.C.-based organization called the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), which said it measured E.coli bacteria levels in the Susquehanna River at Harrisburg that exceeded the level believed to be safe by as much as 10 times.
The likely culprit, it said, is the city’s combined sewer system, which often exceeds capacity and dumps raw sewage into the river during rainstorms.
“I’m committed to getting us a plan that works for cleaning up the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” Papenfuse said.
For its part, CRW today stated that some of the elevated levels measured by EIP are unlikely to originate from its sewage system, especially the reading at City Island. EIP recorded the highest E.coli levels at City Island beach, which, CRW said, is out of reach of the wastewater that flows from its Harrisburg pipes.
“There is little correlation between bacteria concentrations at City Island, rainfall events, and combined sewer overflow (CSO) activity within Capital Region Water’s service territory,” according to CRW. “The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) assessment of Susquehanna River water quality, summarized in the 2016 Pennsylvania Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report, concludes that the shallow and wide physical characteristics of the Susquehanna River in the vicinity of Harrisburg limit mixing across the river.”
CRW is currently under a partial consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to fix the combined flow problem, which is common in cities with old sewer infrastructure. CRW expects to spend some $315 million over the next two decades to address it.
“As we all know, this is [the result of] decades of neglect to the infrastructure,” Majors said.
Papenfuse also has been critical of CRW for its proposed stormwater fee, which would pay for some of the infrastructure fixes, and other issues, such as the long-delayed Front Street interceptor project.
These issues, in part, led to the exploration of a sale, he said.
Papenfuse added that he would hold public meetings if the city continues to consider selling the system. He also said that he’d like to hold a public meeting on the proposed stormwater fee, which CRW wants to implement beginning Jan.1.
“I would strongly support a public meeting to discuss the stormwater fee and other issues,” Papenfuse said. “I think it would be appropriate for council to organize one. It’s a very important and complicated conversation. I’m all for it.”
CRW today said it “is receptive” to a city-arranged meeting on the wastewater fee. It already has been holding numerous meetings around Harrisburg to explain its position to residents.
Click here to read the report, “Sewage Overflows in Pennsylvania’s Capital,” from the Environmental Integrity Project.
This story has been updated to include responses from Capital Region Water.