PSD approves Thrasher review of Rigby sewage proposal
The Pocahontas County Public Service District (PSD) board was impressed with a presentation by wastewater expert David Rigby on April 14, when the Virginia engineer proposed an alternative to Thrasher Engineering's designs for a Snowshoe-area sewage system.
But the board would not approve an independent analysis of Rigby's plan. Instead, theﾠ PSD board voted during a special meeting on May 18 to have Thrasher conduct a feasibility study of Rigby's plan.
Board members Tom Shipley and Amon Tracey and treasurer Ricky Barkley were present at the PSD's Linwood office. Board president Mark Smith, PSD attorney Tom Michael and Thrasher project engineer Jon Carpenter participated via teleconference.
Critics say Thrasher Engineering will not give the Rigby plan a fair review, to protect the firm's reputation.
Rigby, president of Waste Water Management, Inc., proposed rebuilding the existing plants at Snowshoe Village and Silver Creek and a new, small plant near Linwood for the community at the base of the mountain. He said his company could complete the project, including contingencies, for about $20 million.
Thrasher Engineering presented location and design alternatives to the PSD during 2008-2009. In July 2008, the PSD selected Site 7 on Snowshoe Drive as the location for a sewage plant. In February 2009, the board selected an option to build a single, 1.5 million gallon per day, sequencing batch reactor (SBR) plant at Site 7, at a cost of approximately $25 million
Thrasher's alternatives did not include upgrade of the existing Snowshoe plants.
Rigby stated in his April 14 presentation that abandonment of existing infrastructure and permits for those plants is not cost effective. The engineer told the PSD his company could start construction this summer, if his company was selected to design and build the plant.
The PSD board met in executive session with DEP officials in Charleston on May 12. During that meeting, DEP chief enforcement officer Mike Zeto told the PSD that "design and build" was not an accepted practice in West Virginia, according to board member Amon Tracey.
"Mr. Zeto said it was illegal," he said.
Board president Mark Smith agreed that design and build is not an option, but did not rule out consideration of Rigby's design.
"As the people at the DEP said, design and build is not an accepted practice in West Virginia at this time," he said. "But I don't think there would be any reason that Thrasher could not look at it and put it into an engineering-to-build concept so that were comparing apples to apples."
Carpenter said Thrasher would give the new alternative a fair review.
"This is just another alternative to be considered along with the other ones," he said. "This may be a viable proposal, but you have to run the numbers and compare it to those that have already been proposed. You can compare them and it may be the most cost-effective."
Michael said the PSD had an obligation to review any feasible alternative at this stage in the planning process.
"I agree with the idea that we should have Jonathan evaluate this proposal," he said. "In my opinion, we actually have an obligation to consider any feasible alternative at this stage in the process, so I recommend that you have Jonathan take a look at the Rigby proposal."
Board member Tom Shipley asked for comments from ratepayers in attendance.
"What gives Thrasher the right to say whether another engineer's plan is workable or not?" asked Snowshoe Property Owners Council (SPOC) secretary Dale Leatherman.
Donelle Oxley, of Snowshoe, said the major concern with Thrasher's plan was the gravity sewage line from Snowshoe to Site 7.
Rigby stated unequivocally during his presentation that the gravity line posed a significant risk of leakage and was a danger to the environment.
Oxley said many Snowshoe residents were dismayed with what they perceived as reluctance by the PSD board to go against the advice of Thrasher Engineering and Michael. Oxley claimed the attorney exerted undue influence over the board and was working to further Thrasher's interests.
"Mr. Michael appears to be the mouthpiece for Thrasher and is scaring you all into making most of the votes you do, instead of using common sense and doing the right thing," she said. "You say you want to do that during all these meetings and you turn around and do the opposite. I think it's because you're being scared by your legal advice."
"Nobody in this whole world is going to scare me but God," Tracey responded.
Oxley told the board, "you have the power" to hire a new attorney and find a new engineering firm.
Bill Rock, COO of Snowshoe Mountain Resort, said cost-effectiveness was his primary concern.
"We're aligned, as ratepayers, with a system that is most cost-effective," he said.
Rock said the DEP, as well as ratepayers, is a stakeholder in implementing a Snowshoe wastewater solution. The COO said he supported review of the Rigby proposal but was concerned that delays could increase project costs.
After extended discussion, Tracey moved to have Thrasher evaluate the Rigby proposal. Smith seconded and the motion passed 3-0.
PSD violated sunshine law
Shipley moved to the next agenda item, which was discussion of PSD compliance with the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings law.
That law requires public bodies to conduct meetings in public, except for narrowly defined exceptions.
Shipley claimed that recent PSD executive sessions pushed the boundary of the law and that a teleconference on May 10 violated the law.
The published agenda for the May 10 work session, which was held via teleconference, stated, "This meeting will be held in executive session and is not open to the public." The agenda did not provide a location for the meeting.
Subsequent events have proven Shipley correct.
On May 18, Shipley received an email from Theresa M. Kirk, executive director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission, which supports Shipley's allegation.
Kirk's email states, in part,
"You are correct that a meeting notice must state where the meeting will be held. It appears that the meeting you reference was held via telephone. It does not appear that a speaker phone was set up so that citizens could have the opportunity to hear the public portion of the meeting."
The PSD conducted a subsequent meeting with DEP officials in Charleston on May 12. The publishedﾠ agenda for that meeting stated, "This meeting will be held in executive session and is not open to the public."
By law, governmental bodies are required to have a public meeting prior to any executive session. Prior to entering executive session, the body must specifically identify the paragraph in the state code authorizing the executive session and take a vote to convene the secret session.
By stating in the agenda that its May 12 meeting was "not open to the public," the PSD board appears to have violated the law again.
A knowing violations of the Open Governmental Proceedings law is a criminal offense, punishable by a fine up to $500 fine (first offense) or $1,000 (subsequent offenses).
A PSD regular meeting scheduled for May 18 was postponed due to the death of former PSD board president Bill Rexrode. The rescheduled meeting date will be published on The Pocahontas Times website under community happenings.