Private sewer for public need
-- novel idea for Delaware

By STEVEN CHURCH
Staff reporter
05/11/2003

Artesian Water Co.'s offer to build a sewer system to
serve southern New Castle County would be one of the
most ambitious private sewer projects in the nation,
experts said.

County council members, a state lawmaker and community
leaders said they want to discuss the idea of Artesian or
another private company providing sewer services south of
the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. County Executive Tom
Gordon said the county probably can no longer afford the
original $100 million sewer plan with 50 miles of pipes and a
1,000-acre disposal field, a view shared by several County
Council members.

But experts said no private company in the United States
has built, owned and operated a private water system on
such a large scale. Private ownership of water and sewer
systems is commonplace in Europe, experts said.

Although for-profit companies provide sewer service for
thousands of communities around the country, most of
their work is small in scale compared to what is needed in
southern New Castle County.

As in the rest of the country, most sewers in Delaware are
owned and operated by public agencies.

Those run by private companies in Delaware tend to be
smaller and to use an older technology that has failed
more often than the systems favored by public agencies,
said Rodney Wyatt, who is in charge of the groundwater
discharge program for the state Department of Natural
Resources and Environmental Control.

By saying that it is ready to take over responsibility for
sewer service in the area, Artesian Water Co. is striding
into the middle of a debate going on among
environmentalists, public officials and private companies
over whether for-profit companies should be encouraged
to get into the wastewater business.

"The verdict is still out on privatization," said Paul
Schwartz, policy director for Clean Water Action, a
Washington, D.C.-based environmental group. Last year,
Schwartz testified before the Congress about the
increasing number of private companies getting into the
drinking-water and sewer business.

"The concern has been heightened over the last two to
three years," he said.

Artesian Chief Executive Officer Dian C. Taylor said sewer
services are an important part of the company's growth
plans. When Artesian announced profits for the first three
months of this year, it said revenues from the company's
wastewater operations jumped to $103,000, compared
with $16,000 the year before.

The net profit on those revenues during the same period
rose from $2,000 to $32,000.

Gordon has said that he is leaning toward either scaling
back the county's sewer plan or allowing private
companies to provide the sewers.

Gordon is under pressure from County Council, where at
least four of the seven members are inclined to scrap the
plan and replace it with a smaller version because of the
high cost, or to accept some form of private sewer
service, County Council President Christopher Coons said.

State lawmakers also are weighing in.

Rep. Richard D. Cathcart, R-Middletown, said he is working
on a bill that would set up sewer districts in the southern
portion of the county and then allow private companies to
compete for exclusive sewer franchises in the area.

He said there has been enough talk on the subject.

"This whole thing could be debated until the cows come
home," said Cathcart, who represents much of the
affected area. "The fact of the matter is that some sort of
sewer system needs to be built."

Under Cathcart's plan, the Delaware Public Service
Commission would regulate for-profit sewers the same way
it oversees private water service.

His plan reflects the thinking at Artesian, which, through a
corporate partnership, is already running two
sewage-treatment plants for the city of Middletown. The
partnership, known as Aquastructure, designed and built a
2.5 million gallon-a-day wastewater-treatment plant in
Middletown.

Private water companies have gotten more involved in
sewer service in the last few years, mainly because public
agencies don't have enough money to upgrade aging
systems or build new ones, Schwartz of Clean Water
Action said.

Compounding the problem, Schwartz said, is a federal
government that in the last few years has been reluctant
to pay for sewer improvements.

In the United States only about 15 percent of the
population gets its drinking water from private companies,
said biologist Michael Deane, who worked in the
wastewater division of the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency for 15 years before leaving for the private sector
three years ago. There are no reliable figures for the
percentage of people on private sewer systems, but Deane
and other experts said it is much smaller than the
drinking-water figure.

Although Clean Water Action has not taken a formal
position on whether private companies would be better for
ratepayers, the environmental group does have serious
concerns about how rates might be affected and the lack
of accountability to ratepayers under a for-profit sewer
system, Schwartz said.

The environmental record of the private companies is less
of a concern because the companies must meet the same
standards as publicly owned sewers, Schwartz said.

Because both kinds of systems must abide by the same
laws, DNREC Secretary John Hughes said, it makes no real
difference whether a sewer is public or private, as long as
it is well-designed and properly run.

Delaware has six sewer systems owned or operated by
for-profit companies, as well as nine developments and 22
mobile-home parks that have private, community-owned
sewer systems. Together, they treat about 1.3 million
gallons of wastewater a day, according to DNREC.

Most people, however, are served by publicly owned sewer
systems that have a better environmental record than
their private counterparts simply because of the
technology being used, said Wyatt of DNREC. Public
systems treat about 176 million gallons of wastewater per
day.

All but two of the private systems were built using a
system of pipes that collects sewage and funnels it
underground after screening out most solid material. Those
systems can operate for between 15 and 20 years before
the pollutants in the waste build up in the ground and
begin to threaten groundwater, Wyatt said.

The public systems either treat the water until it is safe
enough to discharge into a stream or river, or use an
irrigation system to spray partly treated wastewater onto
fields of grass, Wyatt said. The spray systems can be
used for at least 50 years, he said.

Taylor said her company intends to use spray irrigation to
dispose of treated wastewater because it is the most
environmentally friendly.

Reach Steven Church at 324-2786 or