By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati allows more raw sewage to spew into creeks, rivers and streams than any other sewage district in the country, according to court papers filed in a Sierra Club lawsuit trying to force the agency to halt those discharges.
Seven years of negotiations between the sewer district and the U.S. Department of Justice led to agreements outlining how and when the district will spend $1.5 billion to improve its aged sewage system to prevent discharges, along with raw sewage backups that plague more than 1,000 Hamilton County households every year.
The Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, filed the lawsuit last year, alleging the agreement reached in October doesn't stop the discharges quickly enough, doesn't penalize the sewer district for decades of violations, and doesn't require evaluation of the public health and environmental consequences of the discharges.
Pat Karney, director of the sewer district, agrees that much of the sewer system is too small and in poor condition to handle the demand.
The sewage overflows happen during storms. Rainwater gets into sewage pipes, overloading the lines. When that happens, the system is designed to dump the mixture of storm water and raw sewage into local waterways through outfalls, or discharge points.
Raw sewage carries a hodgepodge of bacteria and parasites that can cause illness and potentially life-threatening conditions. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 1.8 million and 3.5 million people in the nation get sick each year from swimming in waters contaminated by sewer overflows.
Bruce Bell is president of the New Jersey-based company the Sierra Club hired to evaluate the sewer district system and compare the number of discharges here to other cities around the country. He said the district discharges more raw sewage than Los Angeles, which has a system twice the size. Bell's company, Carpenter Environmental Associates, has performed similar evaluations for other environmental groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.
The sewer district could not provide information about the number of illegal discharges they have every year. But the Sierra Club alleges in its lawsuit that there are more than 900 overflows which release "millions upon millions" of gallons of raw sewage per year from the sewer district's 101 outfall locations.
"What Cincinnati reports in a year is about 10 to 20 times the volume L.A. reports," Bell said. "Clearly, the MSD system is undersized, and it has not kept up with population increases and development."
Karney says the debate is over how quickly the district should have to spend the money to fix the problems. The largest source of raw sewage discharges - an outfall along the Mill Creek - will cost at least $200 million to fix. The federal agreement calls for that to happen in either 2017 or 2021, depending on the solution.
"That's a lot of money," Karney said. "That's equal to our capital budget for four years. That means if we were to fix (it), there would be holes all over the system for four years.
"There would be entire neighborhoods without service for four years," he said.
Meanwhile, the district will spend about $20 million on a temporary plant that will help stop some of the discharges by 2006, until a permanent solution is completed, Karney said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune says the fixes could happen faster if projects he feels are unnecessary are delayed. He said he found more than $45 million in such projects during his review of the district's budget.
"We've got a broken, dilapidated system that was allowed to get that way by a generation of commissioner neglect," Portune said.
Hamilton County was one of seven communities featured in a report released Thursday by a pair of nonprofit environmental groups called "Swimming in Sewage."
That report, separate from the Sierra Club lawsuit, was written by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Integrity Project. It says sewage pollution nationwide costs Americans billions of dollars every year in medical treatments, lost productivity, lost tourism revenue and property damage.
Hamilton County is featured because of persistent sewage backups into basements.
The sewer district estimates that about 1,000 homes a year are plagued by such backups. Others, such as Sierra Club officials, say that number could be as high as 10,000.
The report - which says the technology is in place to fix the country's sewage problem but that political will is lacking - makes several recommendations:
Establish a clean water trust fund that could provide low-interest loans and grants to communities for controlling sewer overflows. A similar fund, called the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, is facing a proposed $500 million cut in President Bush's budget next year - the largest cut to any environmental program.
Enforce the existing laws that prohibit raw and undertreated sewage from being discharged.
Require monitoring and public notification of overflows.
Create a public database documenting sewage releases, similar to the one the EPA has for releases of toxic substances.
Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project for the National Resources Defense Council, said it will be used to educate lawmakers, regulators and the public. She called sewage releases a "looming public health crisis."
"The sewage pollution problem is growing, so we can expect more sick people, more beach closures, more basement backups, and so forth, unless we change course and invest in the future," Stoner said.
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