Wastewater Operators Learn Nutrient Removal

If you’ve ever seen a stream choked with green algae, you know what happens when there is too much nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients in water. Agricultural runoff is one of the main causes of these “algae blooms,” but potentially problematic nutrients are also present in the wastewater effluent that is released after treatment as surface water.

To learn how to better address this issue, the Elkins Wastewater Treatment Plant recently hosted a training team from the W. Va. Environmental Training Center. The team provided WWTP operators with classroom instruction and hands-on practice in removing nutrients from treated wastewater.

As part of this training, operators learned how to test wastewater for alkalinity, ammonia, phosphorus, nitrite/nitrate, and pH. Operators also learned about oxygen reduction potential (ORP) and jar testing, a process that simulates WWTP processes at a small scale to test whether changes are needed to achieve water quality goals.

“This training was really important to my operators, because there is increasing concern in our watershed about the need for nutrient removal,” says Whitney Hymes, the chief wastewater operator for the Elkins Sanitary Board. “There are likely going to be state regulations coming soon requiring nitrogen and phosphorous removal, and so we wanted to start learning about it as soon as possible. We really appreciated the visit from ETC. They put on a great class for us.”

 

Hydrant Flushing Starts Monday

Starting Monday, Elkins Water Board employees will be opening fire hydrants to flush out city water lines. During this time, it will be normal to see unattended fire hydrants spraying water under pressure. Customers may experience temporary discoloration that should clear up within minutes or hours.

On a biannual basis, water board employees open fire hydrants to flush water lines of accumulated sediments that can cause discoloration in customers’ homes and other buildings. To flush the lines, water system workers systematically open fire hydrants and let the water flow at full force until water appears clear in a white paper cup.

This work will proceed by sections, starting at elevation on Reservoir Hill, above the Wees District, and working westward across the city. The city will use its social media channels, email alert list, and website to announce which sections of the city will be flushed each day. The information will also be supplied to the media.

After flushing is complete in each section of the city, the Elkins Fire Department will perform flow testing on each hydrant to verify that they are operating according to specifications. Although flow testing only requires hydrants to be open for a few minutes, it takes longer than flushing because each hydrant must be tested. Flushing does not require opening every hydrant, because many sit near each other on the same line.

Even though the overall goal of the flushing is to reduce sediment in water lines, customers in or near a section of the city that is being flushed may temporarily experience heightened discoloration in their water. This does not indicate that the water is unsafe to drink, cook with, or bathe in, but it would be advisable to avoid doing laundry until any remaining sediment has settled once again.

Customers experiencing cloudy or discolored water can try leaving taps open in a bathtub or sink for 20 minutes. It is important not to run hot water, however, as that would fill the building’s water heater with water that contains sediments.

To keep up with City of Elkins news and announcements about this and other topics, bookmark our website (www.cityofelkinswv.com), sign up for email and text alerts (www.cityofelkinswv.com/emergency-text-notifications), and follow us via Facebook (www.facebook.com/elkinscityhall) or Twitter (www.twitter.com/elkinscityhall).

City Demolishes Graham Street Property

When City of Elkins tore down the charred remains of a house at 201 Graham Street earlier this year, it was just the latest chapter in a still ongoing story that began in 2014, when the house was rendered uninhabitable by a fire. Why did it take so long to deal with this hazardous eyesore, and what’s next for this property, which the city still does not own?

The answers to these questions highlight how different the story of each abandoned property can be and demonstrate some of the obstacles that can slow the resolution of such situations. The story of 201 Graham Street also illustrates the potential value of a new law passed in 2022 by the state legislature. That law makes changes to the tax-sale process and establishes a $10 million state fund for demolishing dilapidated structures statewide.

Sold on the Courthouse Steps

By the time of the 2014 fire, the owners of 201 Graham Street had stopped paying property taxes, and the house was placed on the list for that year’s tax-lien auction. These are held each fall by the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office on the steps of the county courthouse.

At tax-lien auctions, bidding starts at the amount of taxes and fees outstanding on each property. Elkins City Attorney Geraldine Roberts explains that winning bidders can’t take possession of the properties for at least 18 months after the auction, during which time the original owners may recover their properties by repaying the taxes and fees, with interest.

“What the sheriff auctions off at these sales is not the property but the right to collect the overdue taxes and fees from the delinquent owner,” says Roberts. “For eighteen months from the date of the auction, the owner of record can redeem the property by repaying those taxes and fees to the winning bidder. If there is no redemption after eighteen months, the winning bidder can take title to the property by completing the redemption process with the state auditor. But until they do, they don’t own it, so not only do they have no incentive to make repairs, they can’t even legally set foot on the property.”

In the case of 201 Graham Street, however, the winning bidder in the 2014 auction declined to accept title to it after the 18-month redemption period ended, and the property was placed back on the list for the next tax-lien auction. It was then purchased by another party, who also eventually declined to take title. Finally, after no one bid on the property at a third auction, the tax lien was transferred to the West Virginia State Auditor.

Throughout this time, the owners of record could not be found, and as mentioned, the parties who purchased the tax lien had neither the legal right nor the incentive to spend a dime on a property that was not, and might never become, theirs.

The burnt building continued to deteriorate, and the grounds became an overgrown jungle of poison ivy.

The City Obtains the Lien—But Not Ownership

In September of 2021, City of Elkins purchased the lien on 201 Graham Street for $726.35 in delinquent taxes, penalties, and fees from the period 2018-2021. Again, the city still did not own the property.

Unlike private parties who are the winning bidders at tax-lien auctions, however, cities don’t necessarily need to wait for title to a property before taking action to address dangerous situations there.

“Under state code, municipalities have the specific power to provide for the eliminations of hazards to public health and safety and to abate a public nuisance,” says Roberts. “In other words, cities do have the right to enter private property and demolish a derelict structure if it has been found to be structurally unsound. This property had been determined to be uninhabitable by both EFD and city code enforcement, so there is no question that the city was well within the scope of its authority to remove the hazards.”

After the demolition was complete, Roberts placed an additional lien on the property for the $14,700 cost to taxpayers of taking the building down and disposing of the debris. She points out that there is almost no chance of recovering this money.

“We can place a lien on the property for the cost of this demolition, but these kinds of liens are only payable if the property is sold and they would be cancelled in the tax-lien auction process,” says Roberts. “We can also take the owner to court, but it doesn’t matter how much a judge awards the city if the owner can’t pay. And in this case, we can’t even find the owner.”

What’s next for 201 Graham Street? Although neighboring property owners might be interested in purchasing the lot, it won’t be the city’s to sell until it is finally transferred to the city’s ownership, either by the owners of record or through a court order. Until then, all officials can do is monitor the property—and wait.

New Law Streamlines Tax Sales, Creates Demolition Fund

Although a new law passed during the 2022 legislative session won’t affect 201 Graham Street, it has the potential to simplify the process of dealing with similar properties in the future.

The state has yet to publish rules implementing the new law, so the specifics are not yet known, but state officials have said that one big change will be a reduction in the time allowed for redemption of delinquent properties from 18 to 12 months. Cities will also have more options for obtaining these properties outside of the auction process.

In addition, the law sets aside $10 million from the state’s ARPA funds to cover the costs of demolishing such properties, costs that—as in the case of City of Elkins and 201 Graham Street—have not usually been recoverable.

The state says it will use this money to bid out large contracts for many demolitions throughout different regions, in hopes of obtaining volume discounts. No matter how large those discounts are, however, $10 million will only go so far. By some estimates, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to demolish all dilapidated and unsafe residential structures statewide, never mind commercial and industrial properties.

Roberts is hopeful, nonetheless.

“This is the first major change to a process that hasn’t been working at all in a long time,” she says. “It’s very encouraging to see the legislature supporting cities in tackling this issue, and I just hope the state will see fit to continue and perhaps expand funding for the demolition program in future years. It could really make a big difference for West Virginia.”

 

Water Plant Hosts Filtration Training

The Elkins Water Treatment Plant recently hosted a training session on membrane water filtration. The session, which was organized by the West Virginia Rural Water Association (WVRWA), was attended by water treatment operators from several counties as well as engineers from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services. Elkins Chief Water Operator Wes Lambert and the rest of the water operators who staff the city’s plant helped provide hands-on training.

The city’s water treatment plant, which was put into service in 2017 after a $37 million construction project, uses membrane water filtration, as opposed to sand or media filtration. WVRWA convened its training session in Elkins for access to both one of the newest membrane-filtration systems in West Virginia and the knowledge and skills that Lambert and his staff have acquired while operating it.

“Wes and his team have always been open to share information about the membrane filtration technology that the Elkins Water Treatment Plant uses,” said Heather Somers, the WVRWA training specialist who facilitated the training session. “This hands-on training class was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate exactly how that technology works.”

Somers called the training a success and said she looks forward to future opportunities to host training at the Elkins plant.

“West Virginia Rural Water is thankful for the opportunity to facilitate this education opportunity in Elkins,” said Somers. “We’re always looking for ways to train the various professionals dedicated to providing safe drinking water in our state.  We hope to continue collaborative training efforts like this in the future.”

 

 

Illegally Dumped Diesel Fuel Found in Tygart River

Water operators contained a small amount of diesel fuel dumped by an unknown person

On Friday, city, county, and state officials responded to a report of an oily sheen in the Tygart River, near Fifteenth Street.

Elkins Water Board employees determined that the sheen was caused by a small amount of diesel fuel in the river. Water operators immediately took action to contain and neutralize the spill, then investigated for the source of the problem.

No ongoing source of contamination was found, and the facts of the situation are consistent with an unknown person having illegally dumped a limited amount of fuel into a nearby storm drain. The substance in question did not enter the city’s treatment system, and the city’s drinking water was unaffected.

Chief Water Operator Wes Lambert reminds the public that it is illegal to dispose of any substances down storm drains, and additional penalties apply for disposing of petroleum products this way. This is because most of the city’s storm drains empty directly into the river, with no treatment; whatever is poured down one of these drains will go directly into the water.

“The Tygart River is our drinking source water,” says Lambert. “We all must do everything we can to protect that water. That means not dumping anything at all down storm drains, and especially not hazardous waste like petroleum products. Dumping into the stormwater system or the river directly can also harm wildlife and cause problems with drains.”

According to the Randolph County Solid Waste Authority, petroleum products may be disposed of at either Advance Auto Parts or Auto Zone. Other auto-supply stores and service stations may also accept petroleum products for disposal.

Lambert urges the public to report any illegal dumping, signs of contamination (e.g., an oily sheen), or suspicious activity in and around city infrastructure facilities.

“If you see anything that concerns you about our water supply, the best thing to do is call 911,” says Lambert. “When it comes to our drinking water, I would rather be safe than sorry, and calling 911 is the best way to ensure the fastest possible response.”

APPLICATION PERIOD EXTENDED: Water Board Vacancy

Last modified on April 28th, 2022 at 03:38 pm

Council will soon fill a vacancy on the Elkins Water Board. City residents who wish to be considered for appointment to this important volunteer position are encouraged to submit an application to the city clerk no later than April 29. Update: The application period has been extended to Friday, May 13.

What the Board Does

The Elkins Water Board is responsible for the the management, control, and operation of the Elkins Public Waterworks System. The water board collaborates with city council in establishing rates and planning and securing funds for capital projects. Council is ultimately responsible for setting rates, issuing bonds, and similar matters.

Membership

There are five seats on the board, one of which must be filled by the mayor (or the mayor’s designee). At least three members must be Elkins residents, and all must be West Virginia residents. Water board members are appointed by the Elkins council to four-year terms; membership is unpaid.

As the current vacancy arose from a resignation, the successful applicant will be appointed for an unexpired term ending March 31, 2023. Again, this applicant must be a city resident.

Meeting Times

The regular meetings of the Elkins Water Board are on fourth Tuesdays at 4 p.m. in the council chamber at Elkins City Hall. The board may also hold special meetings with two days’ notice when needed.

More Information

Visit the Elkins Water Board homepage for more information.

To Apply

Apply by downloading and completing this PDF application form. The form may be submitted to the city clerk’s office by email, mail, or hand delivery. Please ensure your application arrives no later than April 29. Update: The application period has been extended to Friday, May 13.

Elkins Tree Board to Celebrate Arbor Day

Contact: Marilynn Cuonzo, Chair, Elkins Tree Board mcuonzo@cityofelkinswv.com

ELKINS-The Elkins Tree Board will hold its official recognition of Arbor Day Friday, April 29, at 2 p.m. in Glendale Park. The event will include planting two sourwood trees in the Pollinator Alley area of the park and the reading of the Mayor’s Arbor Day Proclamation.

An additional Arbor Day event is scheduled at 5 p.m. at Bluegrass Park. The Emma Scott Garden Club is sponsoring this tree-planting ceremony. The two events are part of a week-long series of environment-themed activities, which kick off with an Elkins City Park tree restoration event on April 22 and an afternoon-long Earth Day Celebration on Saturday, April 30.

“We are so excited to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day this year,” said Angela Daniels, ETB education coordinator. In the 1870s, Nebraska newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton was enthusiastic about trees and advocated strongly for individuals and civic groups to plant them. Once the secretary of the Nebraska Territory, he further spread his message of the value of trees. On January 4, 1872, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture.

The celebration date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for the highest number of properly planted trees on that day. It was estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.

“Our city continues that tradition this year by stepping up its tree-planting efforts, with more than 100 trees placed in the ground in the past year by an extraordinary number of volunteers,” Daniels said. “We are also grateful to those who first started the Elkins Tree Board. Those early tree enthusiasts recognized the importance of having a healthy, well-maintained urban forest.”

This year also marks the 14th time Elkins has been recognized as a Tree City by the Arbor Day Foundation. The foundation honored the city for its commitment to effective urban forest management. The Tree City USA program is sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation, partnering with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters.

Elkins achieved Tree City USA recognition by meeting the program’s four requirements: a tree board or department, a tree-care ordinance, an annual community forestry budget of at least $2 per capita, and an Arbor Day observance and proclamation.

“Everyone benefits when elected officials, volunteers, and committed citizens in communities like Elkins make smart investments in urban forests,” said Matt Harris, Arbor Day Foundation chief executive.

“Trees bring shade to our homes and beauty to our neighborhoods and numerous economic, social, and environmental benefits,” he said. “Trees are assets to a community when properly planted and maintained. They help improve the visual appeal of a neighborhood, increase property values, reduce home cooling costs, remove air pollutants, and provide wildlife habitat, among many other benefits.

“While most holidays celebrate something that has already happened and is worth remembering, Arbor Day represents a hope for the future. The simple act of planting a tree represents a belief that the tree will grow to provide us with clean air and water, cooling shade, habitat for wildlife, healthier communities, and endless natural beauty — all for a better tomorrow.”

For more information on this event and the Elkins Friends of Trees program, visit the Elkins Friends of Trees Facebook page. If interested in joining Elkins Friends of Trees, email Katy McClane at katy.mcclane@gmail.com. Friends of Trees offers volunteer opportunities to increase and maintain the City of Elkins’ urban greenspace.

The Elkins Tree Board meets on the first Tuesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. in the Darden House next to City Hall. The public is welcome to attend.

–END–

PHOTO CUTLINE:

AmeriCorps members Haley Shreve, left, and Ellen White were among the many volunteers who helped dig holes for 30 trees that will be planted at Elkins City Park this April. The project is one of many that the Elkins Tree Board oversees, with the assistance of Friends of Trees, the City of Elkins, and other volunteer agencies. Elkins has once again been selected as a Tree City and will celebrate Arbor Day April 29.

New Water Valve Reduced Recent Outage Area by Half

Around 100 city residents avoiding falling under a recent Boil Water Notice thanks to a newly installed water valve near the intersection of South Henry Avenue and Fifteenth Street. The new valve allowed Elkins Water Board employees to reduce the area affected by the outage and subsequent Boil Water Notice by about 50 percent.

The valve installed at South Henry and Fifteenth is one of five that Wes Lambert, the city’s chief water operator, decided to install throughout South Elkins after 2021 saw nearly three dozen water outages in that part of the city. Although many factors contribute to the frequency of water-main breaks in that area—old pipes, inherently soft soils, and further soil destabilization resulting from the 2021 sewer/stormwater separation project—one reason the resulting outages were often so widespread is the relatively small number of functioning valves in that part of the city’s water system.

To address this problem of needlessly widespread water outages, Lambert ordered the installation of five new valves in key locations throughout South Elkins during early 2022. These new valves, which can cost as much as $15,000 apiece, were purchased using the city’s ARPA funds. Two of these have been installed so far, including the one at South Henry and Fifteenth.

Lambert is pleased that one of the new valves has already shown its value.

“Ideally, we wouldn’t have any more water-main breaks, but unfortunately that’s unavoidable,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m excited we are already seeing a reduction in how many people are affected by a break because of this new valve.”

Reducing the number of water-main breaks will require widespread replacement of the failing lines, a project that will likely take the better part of a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars. As a first step in that direction, council also dedicated a share of the city’s ARPA funds allotment to retaining an engineering firm to formulate a plan for this work. Read more about council’s prioritization of ARPA funds for infrastructure projects here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/council-focuses-on-infrastructure-for-arpa-funds.

To receive notifications of water outages (usually at least one hour in advance, barring emergencies), Boil Water Notices, and other important information, subscribe to emergency text alerts here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/emergency-text-notifications.

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Photo:

Map below shows actual area of recent Boil Water Notice (in yellow) and the area that would have been included, if not for the new valve (in blue).

Elkins ARPA Committee Awards $154,000 for Community Projects

On Wednesday, a city council committee approved more than $150,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for 11 projects proposed by community organizations, including the Elkins-Randolph County YMCA, the Randolph County Humane Society, the Elkins Farmers Market, and Meals on Wheels.

Elkins officials learned in early 2021 that the city had been awarded $3.08 million under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, with half to be disbursed in 2021 and half in 2022. The mayor ordered formation of an ad hoc ARPA Advisory Committee with membership comprising the chairs of council’s five standing committees: Mike Hinchman (Finance Committee), Marilynn Cuonzo (Municipal Properties Committee), Rob Chenoweth (Personnel Committee), David Parker (Public Safety Committee), and Nanci Bross-Fregonara (Rules & Ordinances).

Prior to Wednesday’s meeting, the ARPA Advisory Committee had recommended, and  council had approved, some $1.6 million in ARPA expenditures, including for the retention of an engineer to plan systemwide improvements to the city’s water and sewer infrastructure; the purchase of essential supplies and heavy equipment for the city’s sewer, water, and street departments; software upgrades at the water and wastewater treatment plants; ADA and fire-protection upgrades at city hall; training for peer recovery support specialists requested by the mayor’s Addiction and Homelessness Task Force; and rubber mulch for city playgrounds.

In addition, council reserved five percent (approximately $154,000) of the city’s total ARPA award for eligible community-based requests and authorized the ARPA Advisory Committee to make final distribution decisions for this money. These were the funds being disbursed at Wednesday’s meeting.

Applications for these community requests were accepted via an online form through February 28. Applicants were asked to describe their proposed projects; explain why these projects would constitute an appropriate use of ARPA funds; identify specific demographics their projects will benefit; and estimate total costs. Finally, applicants were asked to connect their projects to goals in the city’s 2018-2023 Strategic Plan, if possible.

The city received 22 community proposals. The total of all 22 project budgets was $516,013.66, or $361,767.66 more than the $154,246 allocated by council.

All submitted applications were reviewed by the committee at Wednesday’s meeting. In reviewing proposals, the committee considered many factors, including long-term viability and whether projects duplicated services or facilities already available in the area.

Appearing in support of their applications were representatives of the Elkins Babe Ruth League (request: $50,000 toward new concrete bleachers/stairs for Robin Harvey Field at Bluegrass Park); Davis & Elkins College (request: $50,000 toward new outdoor amphitheater for community concerts and events); and Randolph County Humane Society (request: $20,000 toward its trap/neuter/release program).

After extensive discussion, the committee approved disbursements for the following 11 projects and in the following amounts: Elkins-Randolph County YMCA (youth center bathroom; $5,000); Davis & Elkins College (new amphitheater; $43,746); Randolph County Humane Society (trap/neuter/release program; $17,000); Randolph County Homeless Shelter (security upgrades; $3,000); Meals on Wheels (meal delivery program; $7,000); Our Town (free public activities and events; $3,000); YouthBuild (operating funds; $15,000); Elkins Babe Ruth League (Bluegrass Park bleachers; $50,000); Elkins Farmers Market (equipment, supplies, and marketing; $5,000); Randolph County Community Arts Center (enhanced fine-arts exhibit capabilities; $5,000); Old Brick Playhouse (sound system; $8,000).

Several project proposals were classified as ineligible for the community-proposed category, because—although requested by community organizations—they would have resulted in improvements to city property. These included requests by the Kump Education Center for $5,000 toward construction of an outdoor education pavilion and Woodlands Development Group for $48,000 toward improvements in the Seneca Mall parking lot in support of that nonprofit’s $16 million project to renovate the historic Tygart Hotel building. (The Kump House and the Seneca Mall parking lot are both owned by City of Elkins.) Committee members agreed to refer the Woodlands request to full council for consideration, outside of the community-proposed projects category. The city’s operations manager, Josh Sanson, said that he would secure resources for the Kump Education Center project, either from within the existing Operations Department budget or by submitting a separate internal ARPA request.

Although the Bluegrass Park bleacher project would also result in improvements to city-owned property, the committee approved the contribution of the final $50,000 needed to fully fund a total project cost of $173,000 because a binding construction bid was set to expire Friday. Babe Ruth League officials present at the meeting expressed concern that, given current skyrocketing increases in the prices of construction materials, failure to fully fund the project this week could result in substantially higher costs.

Organizations awarded ARPA funds are considered subrecipients under the authorizing federal legislation and so must follow all the same documentation requirements and are subject to the same audits as City of Elkins. If auditors were to find that a project was not eligible for ARPA funds, the federal government could require repayment.

For more information about the city’s ARPA award, including amounts allocated to date, see: www.cityofelkinswv.com/arpa-funds.

Elkins Receives Clean Audit for Fiscal Year 2021

The “unmodified” audit opinion is the city’s tenth in a row

City of Elkins received high marks on its latest annual audit, Elkins City Treasurer Tracy Judy reported to council last night. West Virginia cities must undergo yearly audits, per state law. This audit, which examined financial records from the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021, was performed by accountants working for BHM CPA Group, an Ohio-based public accounting firm with offices in Huntington, West Virginia.

The purpose of municipal audits is to verify the city’s financial position, as described on its annual financial statements, and to evaluate its compliance with state law and government accounting standards. To accomplish this, auditors review the city’s accounting procedures and examine financial records related to revenues and expenditures, grant administration, bank accounts, and more. Auditors also evaluate the city’s internal controls, or fraud-prevention safeguards.

“This is our tenth unmodified opinion in a row,” Judy told council. “That is the highest grade you can get, because it means the auditors didn’t find any significant errors in our financial statements.”

Sometimes also referred to as an “unqualified” or “clean” opinion, an unmodified opinion is the best result an audit can return because it indicates that auditors have found no misrepresentations of fact or failures to follow appropriate accounting standards. As Judy mentioned, Elkins has received unmodified opinions in each of its annual audits since the fiscal year ending in 2012.

For more about city audits, see: www.cityofelkinswv.com/government/treasurer/audits.

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