Struggle for the sewers: PUC hearings herald one more step in Delco turf war

Protestors and city officials gather outside the DELCORA building in Chester to protest the Delaware County Regional Water Authority’s deal with Aqua America, Inc. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Protestors and city officials gather outside the DELCORA building in Chester to protest the Delaware County Regional Water Authority’s deal with Aqua America, Inc. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Aqua Pennsylvania wants to buy Delaware County’s regional wastewater system. The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission will field comments Wednesday from consumers about whether to approve that multimillion-dollar deal.

A sale to the Bryn Mawr-based company that provides water and sewer service to much of suburban Philadelphia wouldn’t just mean privatization of the system known as DELCORA —  it would herald an end to the ongoing political turf war in the county over it.

Hearings on the application filed by Aqua Pennsylvania Wastewater Inc. are scheduled to take place at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sept. 16, with Administrative Law Judge Angela Jones presiding. Though the hearings on Zoom are open to the public, would-be listeners were required to register in advance with the Pennsylvania Office of Consumer Advocate by Tuesday.

“The processes for the public input hearings have been a little different for each one,” said acting state consumer advocate Tonya McCloskey. “The process for this one did require customers to call in to our office even if they just wanted to listen in.”

As of 2 p.m. Tuesday, fewer than 10 parties were registered to testify, according to the Consumer Advocate’s Office. The hearings will be transcribed by a court reporter, but not recorded, McCloskey said.

Transcripts will be reviewed by the administrative law judge, then made available for purchase from the court reporting service or available for review by appointment at the PUC, press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen said, although the commission’s offices currently remain closed. The transcripts will not be posted on the PUC website.

The struggle for the sewers

DELCORA’s proposed purchase by Aqua Pennsylvania is only the latest installment in a long-standing partisan fight.

For more than 150 years, the county and the wastewater management system formally known as the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority remained under Republican Party control.

In September 2019, Aqua Pennsylvania announced plans to purchase DELCORA for $276.5 million. The authority serves 165,000 customers in more than 40 towns in Delaware and Chester counties, which would make Aqua’s proposed purchase the largest privatization of a public water or wastewater system in Pennsylvania thus far.

Local Democrats point out Aqua PA’s track record of support for Delaware County Republicans, saying the deal was designed to keep the wastewater system from falling under Democratic control after last year’s election, in which the GOP was swept out of its last seats on the County Council.

Republicans say it’s not a political move as much as it is a logistical one: DELCORA currently pays Philadelphia to treat some of its wastewater but wants to expand its own independent treatment plant by the time its contract with the city ends in 2028.

Robert Willert, DELCORA’s executive director, is also president of the Ridley Township Board of Commissioners and head of the township’s Republicans. In the past, he has called the Democrats’ pushback against the Aqua PA acquisition their move to make it political.

DELCORA isn’t the only authority over which Aqua PA is poised to take control. In Norristown this summer, local organizers struggled to block the sale of the borough’s municipal sewer system to the company for $82 million.

And advocates for environmental and consumer protection are fighting the utility company’s takeover of regional provider Chester Water Authority, which provides drinking water to 42,000 customers in Delaware and Chester counties. They have called on members of the state House to require ratepayer approval before the sale of publicly owned water and sewer systems.

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