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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article was submitted for the March / April 2005  issue of the Ohio Sierran.

Getting Sewage Out of Rivers & Basements

By , Conservation Program Coordinator

The Wastewater Treatment System of Columbus Department of Sewers & Drains

The city of Columbus has used sewer and water utilities to capture growth and annex land, at least since Mayor Jack Sensenbrenner took office in 1954. It has expanded in size by five times since that year, offering municipal water and sewer utilities in return for city annexation of land. Columbus Division of Sewerage and Drainage (“DOSD”) services most central Ohio residents, even outside Columbus city limits: 1.1 million out of 1.4 million in the region. The city has contract agreements to treat the wastewater of 22 surrounding municipalities, as well as some of Delaware County, Franklin County, Jefferson Township, and Rickenbacker Airport. There are over 2,300 miles of sanitary sewage pipes carrying wastewater from industries, government, and residences to the treatment plants. Two hundred additional miles carry sewage combined with storm water runoff from streets and paved surfaces; ordinarily this combined stream goes to wastewater plants, but during wet weather combined sewage is often discharged into rivers without treatment. Columbus has two wastewater treatment plants, Jackson Pike and Southerly. In 2003, they handled together an average of 184 million gallons per day (“MGD”), 10% more than 2002, for a total of more than 67 billion gallons. Jackson Pike was built in 1937 and upgraded 1988-1992. Southerly was built in the mid-1960s and expanded in 1971 and 1987. Both plants are undergoing capital works projects to improve treatment and capacity; there are no public plans to expand with a third treatment plant. The plants cannot handle volumes during heavy rains and untreated sewage is often discharged. Columbus discharges a lot of untreated raw sewage - volumes are still not measured and reported. Sanitary Sewer Overflows (“SSOs”) occur at 102 Designated Sewer Relief points (“DSRs”). From these unpermitted places, like manholes, undiluted sewage leaves the system and can flow into storm water pipes. The SSO raw sewage is discharged into the environment and waterways at 43 outfall points. Columbus DOSD is required to report SSOs to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“OEPA”). In 2003 they had a total of 504 reported SSOs. The largest single discharge was over 70 million gallons. There were 543 reported SSOs through the end of October, 2004 with volumes recorded only at one location. 32 Combined Sewer Overflows (“CSOs”) discharge through 20 outfalls, mostly permitted pipes emptying sewage mixed with storm water into rivers in the older city around the downtown core. There are 19 outfall regulators that can measure flow. The Sierra Club is pushing to get that information published. Basement Backups occur when sewage comes into houses because of system overloads or blockages. The city calls these events Water in Basement (“WIB”) and accepts responsibility when problems are caused in the public sewers, but not in the private lateral. They could also be called Sewage in Basement (“SIB”). In 2003, there were over 3,400 reported basement backups, of which the city accepted responsibility for about 9%. There were over 2,000 reported up to September 15, 2004. The wastewater treatment plants bypass sewage when volume is too large. The Jackson Pike plant shunts through a connector to the Southerly treatment plant, where untreated sewage bypasses directly to the Scioto River at times of high flow. Although OEPA requires reports on when bypasses occur, total volumes are often not given.

SIERRA CLUB ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The Sierra Club notified the City of Columbus in March 2002 of its intent to bring a lawsuit based on SSO violations of the Clean Water Act. In August, the City and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (“OEPA”) signed an SSO consent order, effectively ending the suit. The consent order is a contract recorded by the court, obligating the city to certain things to escape liability for past SSOs. The Sierra Club was not satisfied with progress toward the Clean Water Act goals of fishable, swimmable waters and threatened another lawsuit for combined sewer violations. Columbus and OEPA signed a second consent order in 2004, this one governing combined sewers. Both consent orders lay out deadlines for the city of Columbus to meet. Major requirements are for large technical reports, one to address SSO problems and one for CSOs. There are relatively small penalties for continued SSO and CSO discharges. The consent orders do not set dates to eliminate overflows or require exact reporting of all overflow volumes. Although the Central Ohio Sierra Club believes that the consent orders do not go far enough in protecting rivers and residents, we will watch to make sure that the City does what it has said it will do and will press for more protections. The Club has been a consistent advocate for reducing CSOs of combined sewage and storm water and eliminating SSOs of raw sewage. We have asked for warnings when overflows do occur: There are now postings on the web and at the site of overflows. In 2004 the city introduced its own “Project Dry Basement,” offering selected homeowners a basement valve to prevent backups of sewage. In return, the homeowners have to sign an agreement waiving all basement backup claims against the city at that property. Club advocacy for basement backup victims helped encourage the city to begin addressing the problem. Raw sewage in basements is a health hazard and a city public relations problem. The Central Ohio Group will organize on behalf of victims. The Central Ohio Group (“COG”) has initiated a dialogue with Columbus DOSD and consistently asked for public access to important information on overflows. DOSD is now starting to post such information on its website. The COG has pushed for openness and inclusion of the community in important decisions. Significant neighborhood capital projects can have public notification meetings. The CSO consent order process explicitly requires involvement of the public.

FUTURE CHALLENGES
Columbus is obligated to complete major studies by July 1, 2005 with options addressing wet weather overflows. Columbus’ expensive, ambitious effort will shape how wastewater is handled and how the city grows during the next 30 years. COG will be vigilant as DOSD develops capital plans for the next decades. We will look at technical reports, attend meetings and hearings, and ask hard questions. We will advocate complete separation of storm water from sanitary wastewater. We will demand that the municipal utility stop basement backups of raw sewage and we will act as a voice for the citizens who continue to suffer from sewage intrusions in their homes. We will ask for increased capacity. We will press for money to be spent on rehabilitation and improvement of existing infrastructure, rather than building new sewers. The ultimate goals are preventing raw sewage from entering in residents’ homes, area rivers, and compliance with the Clean Water Act.
 

Columbus discharges a lot of untreated raw sewage - volumes are still not measured and reported... In 2003 they had a total of 504 reported SSOs. The largest single discharge was over 70 million gallons.
Columbus is obligated to complete major studies by July 1, 2005 with options addressing wet weather overflows. Columbus’ expensive, ambitious effort will shape how wastewater is handled and how the city grows during the next 30 years.

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