By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer
SYMMES TWP. - A battle over the proposed $34 million expansion of the Sycamore Creek sewage plant is the first of at least eight such fights brewing along one of Ohio's most important waterways - the 105-mile Little Miami River, one of only three "National, Wild and Scenic" rivers in Ohio.
The river's designation, given by Congress and based on a waterway's beauty, importance to wildlife and historic or cultural value to the nation, is meant to protect streams like the Little Miami against excessive pollution and damming.
The Metropolitan Sewer District, which runs the Sycamore Creek plant, says the expansion is necessary and will improve the Little Miami's water quality because raw sewage is routinely discharged into Sycamore Creek during heavy rains. The creek feeds into the Little Miami River.
According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the plant has violated its permit with illegal discharges no fewer than 840 times over the past five years.
Environmental groups say the Sycamore Creek expansion is illegal and will harm the river, not help it. The expansion will dump an additional 30 million gallons of effluent, or treated wastewater that is high in harmful chemicals such as ammonia and phosphorus, into the river every day.
Mike Fremont, president emeritus of the environmental group Rivers Unlimited, said 20 wastewater treatment plants line the Little Miami River and make the water quality progressively worse as it goes down stream.
"They all make the water quality worse," Fremont said. "We have to come to grips with what we really want in this community. Do we want dirty water and to cram in as much development at the lowest possible cost? Or do we want a better quality of life here?
"We don't seem to care what kind of air and water we have here, while we desperately seek growth. People don't seem to understand how rare it is that a river in Ohio has been declared a national wild and historic waterway."
Rivers Unlimited attorney Dwight Poffenberger Jr. wrote a letter to the OEPA laying out several legal challenges and questions that must be answered before the state can grant an expansion permit.
As a National Wild and Scenic river, the state can take no action that would lead to the lowering of water quality.
There are no discharge limits for fecal coliform in the proposed permit.
The Little Miami is on the state's list of "impaired" waterways and therefore cannot be further contaminated.
The plant sits in a flood plain and will spew raw sewage into the river in times of flood.
"The proposed plant needs to be flood proof, provide a level of treatment that improves, not degrades, the water quality of the Little Miami (and) stops the sewer overflows," Poffenberger's letter says. "It is not in the public interest to allow increased pollution."
But Bob Campbell, acting director of MSD, said the expanded plant will improve water quality because it will eliminate most of the illegal discharges that have become so common.
"There are a lot of bypasses occurring in that system," Campbell said. "We feel this will improve the water quality because we'll be treating that (sewage)."
Jim Simpson, district manager for surface water at the OEPA's Southwest Office, said a lot more pressure will be put on the Little Miami in coming years as his agency considers more requests for plant expansions.
Simpson said the water quality in the river meets state standards, but other criteria - such as those looking at the types and quantities of fish species, for example - aren't measuring up along several stretches. That could mean stricter permits in the future.
He said the number of expansion plans will place a burden on ratepayers, too.
"We'll have to look at some relatively sophisticated levels of treatment that will increase the cost and force the operators to be more rigorous in the operating procedures," Simpson said.
Fremont doesn't think that's enough. "We're raising hell over this thing because it will set a precedent for the next set of plants to come," he said.
A public hearing on the Sycamore Creek plant expansion will be held Thursday at Montgomery Elementary School, 9609 Montgomery Road. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.
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