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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article was submitted for the September / October 2004  issue of the newsletter.

Mayor Coleman, Get Into Compliance With the Clean Water Act!

By , Sierra Club Water Quality Coordinator, Columbus

The City of Columbus discharges large volumes of raw sewage and is the biggest polluter of area waterways. The Sierra Club challenged Columbus’ sewage dumping in 2002 and 2003 by filing four Letters of Intent to Sue. Seemingly in response to the Sierra Club’s threat to sue and to head off litigation, Columbus and Ohio EPA negotiated two Consent Orders, which are agreements entered in and enforced by the courts detailing steps the city will take to reduce overflows. Columbus has also begun a program to install backup prevention valves in a limited number of homes, while freeing the city from liability.

Large volumes of raw sewage are released in at least four ways. Sanitary sewer Overflows (SSOs) occur when untreated and undiluted raw sewage is released from the sewer system; they are illegal under the Clean Water Act. In a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), pipes containing both sewage and storm water allow the two to mix during rainy periods. CSOs cause discharge of diluted sewage into rivers in the older parts of the city. Often the city’s treatment plants cannot handle the volume of sewage, especially during rains, and they bypass discharge untreated waste directly into the river. Sewage in Basement (SIB) (called “Water in Basement” by the city) occurs when sewage from an overloaded public sewer backs up into a homeowner’s basement. The Columbus Utilities Department handles waste water treatment through its Division of Sewerage and Drainage (DOSD). Ohio EPA is the state regulatory agency responsible for enforcing the federal and state laws and regulations.

The SSO Consent Order took effect in 2002. Columbus agreed to pay fines for its SSO violations and notify the public of SSOs. The city agreed to make monthly and annual reports of SSOs and to produce three larger reports addressing emergency response, management and operation, and system evaluation and capacity. The SSO Consent Order does not give dates for eliminating SSOs. It does not require measuring and reporting volumes of raw sewage discharged. It does not appear to require public notification beyond posting some signs at places were the discharges may occur. It does not contain interim deadlines for completion of projects. Fines for the city’s violations are very low.

The CSO Consent Order was passed by City Council in May 2004 and is currently being finalized. The draft has very low penalties for CSO violations. Like the previous consent order, it requires public notification of sewer discharges and 3 reports (operation and maintenance, technologies analysis, and long term control plan). It requires DOSD to hold public meetings about CSOs starting in August 2004. Unlike Consent Order I, no ongoing monthly reports of violations are required. 20 years are allowed for implementation of report recommendations. It does not stop CSO discharges or even set dates to measurably reduce them. The Sierra Club made comments to Ohio EPA about shortcomings of the CSO Consent Order. We have yet to see if OEPA will act to toughen the Consent Order.

DOSD’s Project Dry Basements was approved by Columbus City Council in July 2004. The city authorized $1 million to purchase and install approximately 250 backflow prevention valves in residents’ homes. In order to be eligible, the applicant must: be a resident of Columbus (not eligible are people served by DOSD but living outside city limits); have had a sewage backup between Jan. and May of 2004; have called in a complaint to DOSD; have had the city agree it was their responsibility; and be inspected if it is a rental unit. There are only 182 homes at present that are even eligible. A waiting list is available for people who have had backups before and after this period. In order to get the backflow prevention valve, the homeowner must sign an agreement giving up all claims against the city for basement backups, past and future. This appears to bind later owners and to run with the property. Project Dry Basement will likely be renewed for two more years. It does not: include an education and prevention component, help homeowners with cleanup or health dangers, address systemic issues that may be causing basement backups, offer any independent review of who caused the backup, or help the thousands of people who have had raw sewage in their homes but are not judged eligible. Those eligible should think carefully before giving up backup claims forever.

The Ohio Sierra Club hired me in March 2004 to work on Columbus sewer issues. Central Ohio Sierra Club members and I have met with DOSD four times between May and July. We suggested ways to make information more accessible to the public and better ways to manage basement backups.

Columbus has aggressively serviced new development and annexed land for decades but has not added new sewer treatment plants. This has had the effect of creating sprawl, as well as adding vast amounts of new sewage to a system that is over capacity. Mayor Coleman is the person with the most ability to make changes in Columbus’ approach to properly managing sewage.

Work with the Sierra Club:

  • Go to the DOSD website. Compare it to the website for Cincinnati’s Metro Sewer district basement program.

  • Report all basement backups or overflows to DOSD at 614-645-7102.

  • Tell your elected officials that you do not want discharges of untreated sewage. Contact Mayor Coleman and City Council members. The is 614-645-2489 and information about City Council can be found by calling 614-645-7380.

Let us hear from you. Do you have a story to share about basement backups or overflows? Are you getting the information you need? Do you want to be involved with this issue? Contact .

The City of Columbus discharges large volumes of raw sewage and is the biggest polluter of area waterways.
Mayor Coleman is the person with the most ability to make changes in Columbus’ approach to properly managing sewage.

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