Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Deal promises relief from sewage floods

District would be responsible for cleanup, losses

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Almost 8 feet of sewage-tainted water filled Chuck and Raymele Penley's Delhi Township basement in May after a storm and sewer overflow.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
| ZOOM |
Chuck and Raymele Penley know what to do when their basement floods. After the sewage and storm water recede, they hose down the basement, then sling bleach and, finally, fire up the dehumidifier.

It's a routine they've got down pat after 25 years of living in a Delhi Township home that suffers sewage backups several times a year, Chuck Penley says. Twice - in May and in 1978 - the sewage has reached the ceiling of their basement.

The Penleys have always done their own cleanup and have always absorbed the costs of their property losses.

However, Hamilton County homeowners may soon be able to get the Metropolitan Sewer District to take care of both the cleanup and the losses under a proposed agreement reached Tuesday between Hamilton County and state and federal environmental officials. This could take effect Jan. 1.

The new approach to customer service is just one piece of a global consent decree developed to end pollution from MSD's aging sewage system into the county's streets, rivers and basements. Overall, implementation could cost $1.5 billion over the next 19 years and triple sewer rates, MSD director Patrick Karney told the Enquirer.

Under other provisions of the decree, MSD also would:

• Improve the system so that sewage no longer backs into basements.

• Fix sewer overflows into streets and rivers by specific deadlines.

• Pay $1.2 million to federal and state agencies for past violations of pollution laws.

• Spend $5.3 million on environmental improvements to the Mill Creek and other areas, also as a punitive measure.

Approvals needed

Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County commissioners must approve the decree before it's submitted to U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel in two months. The public will also get several chances to comment.

Oct. 17: Public hearing on proposed consent decree at Blue Ash Municipal Building, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Oct. 20: Public hearing on proposed consent decree at North College Hill Junior/Senior High School, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Oct. 27: Public hearing on proposed consent decree at Lockland Municipal Building, 5:30-7:30 p.m.

Dec. 4: Deadline for consent decree to be approved by Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County commissioners and final version filed in court.

If Spiegel doesn't accept the consent decree, he could allow the Sierra Club to proceed with a lawsuit the group has filed against MSD.

"We feel very good about where we are right now, but we want to hear what everyone says," said Heather Lauer, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, which helped put together the consent decree.

One necessity the Sierra Club said the consent decree lacks is an independent oversight committee. However, it would add an ombudsman to handle customer complaints.

The Sierra Club applauded MSD for coming up with a plan to aid homeowners who experience basement flooding.

"This problem has been a threat to our health and safety for far too long," said Katie Danko, conservation organizer for the Sierra Club.

Under the decree, the customer service program would include a call center that's staffed 24/7 to take complaints and dispatch crews to flooded homes within four hours. If the crews were to decide the problem was MSD's fault, MSD would pay for cleanup and the residents could submit claims for documented damage.

However, Sierra Club official Marilyn Wall questioned on Tuesday how many backups MSD would be able to diagnose, noting that in the past crews have often been unable to get to flooded areas quickly enough.

Accustomed to sewage

The proposed changes are small consolation for the thousands of Hamilton County residents who have already lost cars, family photos and appliances to sudden floods of raw sewage.

"It makes you sick," Chuck Penley said. "Now they're going to take responsibility for something that they should have taken responsibility for 25 years ago."

Penley tried to get help from MSD and Delhi Township when he first had flooding 21/2 decades ago, but he eventually got tired of banging against that concrete wall, he said.

"I talked and talked and it didn't do any good, so I gave up," he said.

Instead, the family got used to cleaning raw sewage. Then, about 18 months ago, Penley said, he spent nearly $6,000 on improvements to his driveway and basement that were supposed to end flooding of his three-bedroom home on Rapid Run Pike.

The family put a 25-cubic-foot freezer in the basement and filled it with chicken, sides of beef and other food. They added shelves and began storing photos, baseball cards and yearbooks there.

They lost it all in a May flood that also flooded dozens of their neighbors' basements.


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