‘I’ve never seen this’: Customer reports black water as Mountaintop utility pushes for improvement

Bottled water donated to Mountaintop community

Nestle Waters donated 1,600 cases of bottled water to Mountaintop community Friday, Jan. 19, 2017 at the Snow Shoe EMS.
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Nestle Waters donated 1,600 cases of bottled water to Mountaintop community Friday, Jan. 19, 2017 at the Snow Shoe EMS.

Stephen Murnyack has lived in Clarence off and on for nearly 50 years, but hadn’t seen anything like the black water coming out of his bathtub faucet on Feb. 15.

“This is the worst it’s been for me,” he said. “I’ve never seen this.”

It took him around five hours of running the taps in his house to flush out the dirt and sediment trapped in the pipes.

Trouble began when the Mountaintop Regional Water Authority detected a leak on a water line near the top of Murnyack’s street, which — along with the line — dead-ends close to his house.

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Clarence resident Stephen Murnyack’s bathtub, pictured here on Feb. 15, after a leak was identified on his water service line, forcing the authority to shut off the water to fix it. Stephen Murnyack Photo Provided

The authority alerted Murnyack that it would switch off the water to make a repair. Typically, once a leak is patched, workers will turn on a valve to flush trapped sediment so customers can have clean water again.

But that didn’t happen in Murnyack’s case. The flush valve on his street was busted, and the authority wasn’t able to fix it right after mending the leak. Several houses on his street also experienced dark brown or black water filled with sediment, he said.

Build-up on dead-end lines ranks among the problems the utility is tackling as it tries to rebound from years of infrastructure failures, authority Chairman Jim Yost said. Lawmakers said they’re paying attention.

“Every time we shut a line down, there’s dirt,” Yost said. “... I’ve seen some pictures in bathtubs of just horrendous-looking water.”

The bad leak on Tennessee Turnpike that Murnyack recalled had been going on a while, Yost said. The authority has two full-time maintenance workers to handle all the leaks and improvements to the system, plus four part-time staff and a mostly volunteer board.

“When we shut something down, it releases the pressure, and when the water goes back in, it stirs everything up,” Yost said. That includes sediment on the sides of wells, or rust from cast iron pipes used in parts of the system. Workers flushed the lines at the time of the repair on Tennessee Turnpike, but that couldn’t prevent houses on the dead-end line from seeing sediment.

Murnyack said he knows the authority has only two maintenance staffers working on hundreds of miles of line.

“I’m not doing this to berate the Mountaintop Regional Water Authority,” he said. “I sent the same information to state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz and state Sen. Jake Corman, and I’m hoping that they can help us on the Mountaintop.”

Pennsylvania State Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-McElhattan, chats with visitors during an open house at her new Milesburg office on Thursday, March 7, 2019. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Leaks and water-shortage problems have plagued the Mountaintop water system for over a decade, but this past year was one of the worst on record — with a boil water advisory and critical water shortage last winter, plus many leaks and dirty water due to system fixes.

Meanwhile, the authority is in the middle of securing clearance from the state Department of Environmental Protection for a corrective action plan, Yost said.

The plan includes placing meters along main service lines to monitor flow and identify leaks; monitoring groundwater sources over a three-year period; and using data to analyze and evaluate which parts of the system need repairs, authority consultant Ken Beldin of the Altoona firm Gwin Dobson and Foreman told the Centre Daily Times in December.

The water authority has already completed around three-quarters of meter-pit and pressure-reducer installations, which help identify and reduce water leaks, Yost said. He estimated the fixes have cost the authority around $150,000 with help from grants, and the remaining installations will run the authority about $40,000 to $45,000.

Since installing pressure reducers and meter pits, Yost said, the water authority has reduced water pumpage by 100,000 gallons a day, due to the discovery of some leaks he believes were ongoing for years.

DEP requested the authority move up its timetable for finding an additional groundwater source, something Yost said the authority is trying to decide if it needs. The authority draws water from two wells, and a spring serves Pine Glen, he has said.

He cited affordability as the biggest concern. The authority amended its corrective action plan and is waiting on DEP approval.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said his office has been working with DEP and the authority to get the plan cleared.

“I think we’ve made some good progress there,” he said, declining to elaborate until the plan is approved.

Once the plan is approved, he said, the authority can start looking into Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority or Commonwealth Financing Authority loans and grants to offset the cost of fixes, from water leak protection to “wholesale changes.”

Last January, former state Rep. Mike Hanna told the CDT that Mountaintop’s low rates made it difficult for the authority to qualify for PennVEST dollars, which are a major source of infrastructure funding. Corman said programs like PennVEST look for more local support in the form of rates paid by customers.

“Some of these programs don’t look favorably upon (low rates); they want to see a local effort, as well,” he said.

But other programs, like CFA, “don’t put quite as much weight” on local funding matches, he said.

The Mountaintop water system is in a tight spot over “infrastructure challenges just because they don’t have the tax base to upgrade to the level that they’d maybe like to,” Corman said.

He thinks “the water authority’s doing a good job” given all the leaks and significant problems the small maintenance crew and board has had to manage, he said.

Borowicz, who was just elected in November to represent the 76th House district, said she was still gathering information on the Mountaintop situation and didn’t want to discuss specifics until she was more familiar. She said she hopes to talk publicly about it in the coming weeks.

Murnyack said he hopes speaking out can get the ball rolling on a fix for the water system. When Mountaintop was having water problems last summer, he said, Corman’s office sent bottled water to help out residents.

“I did get a couple cases of bottled water and, you know, that’s nice, but that doesn’t fix the problem,” said Murnyack. “What can the state representatives do to help us out?”

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and education for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.