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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article was updated April 2003.

Why Columbus Sewers and Rivers Stink

By

The Sierra Club is continuing its legal actions against the City of Columbus Department of Sewers and Drains, (DOSD), which has been illegally dumping untreated raw sewage into Central Ohio rivers and basements.

The Club has compiled these statistics from its records search--3 billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial waste bypassing Columbus’ two sewage treatment plants each year, 900 illegal cross connections of sewer lines into stormwater lines, 800 illegally unreported sanitary sewer overflows, and 10,000 reported basement sewage backups in the last 5 years.

The Sierra Club has been disappointed that neither Mayor Coleman nor any City Council members have so far been willing to stand up and question the actions of the DOSD.

Two political processes are contributing to Columbus’ sewage overflows. First, residents’ sewer fees have for many years been prioritized toward building new sewers at the edges of the city. This has meant that routine operation and maintenance have been neglected. Neither developers nor businesses/homeowners in the areas supplied by new sewers are paying the full cost of building these new sewers. This subsidy, plus the desire of developers for new territory, has created some intense political pressure for new sewers. Since Columbus lacks planning for development, ratepayer sewer dollars are subsidizing sprawl. Second, Columbus is using its sewers as a “loss leader” to acquire new territory and taxes from residents in these areas. Other jurisdictions can’t compete, and often lose territory. Jefferson Township, for instance, needed to spend $8-9 million for a new sewage treatment plant to deal with development in the area. A developer organized a citizen meeting to vocally oppose the needed rate increase. When the Township got cold feet about expanding its plant, Columbus offered to take their sewage at a rock-bottom price. A deal was struck that gave Columbus the ability to expand its territory to the northeast. Columbus has plans for new sewers going all the way up Blacklick Creek to New Albany. What will a sewer system that is already over capacity do with this added sewage? Columbus, like other cities, can offer a low price because dumping untreated sewage is cheap. Since the US and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies have failed to enforce the Clean Water Act, it often pays polluters to discharge illegally. This places governments and businesses that obey the law at a competitive disadvantage.

For many years Columbus has failed to provide adequate operation and maintenance of its sewers, including enforcing grease ordinances. This will inevitably catch up with ratepayers in the future, as a neglected infrastructure falls apart, while new plants must be built at the same time. As the economy slows, the prospect of maintaining modern sanitary conditions could be severely compromised.

Ohio EPA, behind closed doors, negotiated a consent order to “prosecute” Columbus, in order to avoid a Sierra Club lawsuit that would force the city to eliminate unpermitted sanitary sewer overflows. Ohio EPA ignored the Club's criticism of the consent order. The consent order reduces Columbus’ fines from $4 million to $250,000, includes a sprawl-inducing new sewer as a solution (!), and lacks fixed dates for completion. Columbus is already violating the terms of this consent order.

Raw sewage is posing a serious health hazard in Columbus rivers and homes. It carries bacteria such as E. Coli and fecal coliform, viruses such as Hepatitis C, and parasitic intestinal worms. It releases molds that can be inhaled. These diseases can be tragic. One resident has had 8 years of raw sewage backups in her home. Plumbers have refused to return, citing sewer gases that could explode. Her home has a stench, she has had numerous sores, and all in her family tested positive for Epstein-Barre virus. These diseases can be difficult to diagnose, let alone find their source. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) cites a study that links 30% of intestinal upsets to drinking water. PSR is urging more research in this area. Untreated sewage is the major cause of contaminated drinking water. Columbus spent thousands of dollars this year on dangerous pesticides that they claim reduce the threat of West Nile Virus. West Nile is a mild disease in comparison with some diseases caused by untreated sewage.

Low-income households suffer more from basement backups. They often live where sewers are oldest. And they may not be able to afford proper cleanup. Columbus routinely tells people with basement sewage that the city is not responsible. They may suggest that homeowners call a private plumbing firm, which is expensive and in most cases will not solve the problem. If residents persist, the city tells them to sue. If the residents are tenants, Columbus tells them to contact the landlord about the problem.

The Sierra Club currently has filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Columbus in Federal Court, for violations surrounding combined sewer overflows and for violations of the city’s stormwater permit. The Sierra Club is also petitioning to intervene in the Columbus/Ohio EPA Consent Decree on sanitary sewer overflows. This is pending in Ohio Court.

Columbus DOSD is executing plans to separate stormwater from sewage in combined sewers in the OSU area. This laudable step has been compromised by the city’s avoidance of public input. DOSD also refuses to look at alternatives that would be less expensive and less environmentally damaging. DOSD plans to dump the stormwater into the Olentangy River without treatment or mitigation by construction of retention ponds and vegetative swales. The reason may be simply that DOSD lacks the political will to modernize.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Columbus mayor Michael Coleman is the official with the most power to make a change in the way Columbus prioritizes its sewer dollars. He ran on a campaign to improve the inner city and help minorities. Write him at 90 W. Broad St., Columbus 43215.

Legal and expert fees are expensive. But benefits in our litigation are exponential compared to costs. Columbus has agreed to spend half a billion dollars because of the Club’s work. But citizens must have oversight on how this money is spent. Our lawsuits can literally redirect the spending of billions, but we cannot continue without funding. Please make a tax-deductible check to the Sierra Club Foundation and mail it to Ken Johnsen, COG Treasurer, 6760 Hayhurst St., Worthington, OH 43085. Thank you!

If you have basement backups to report, or want to help publicize the Campaign, contact at 614-890-7865.

Neither Mayor Coleman nor any City Council members have so far been willing to stand up and question the actions of the DOSD.
The Club now has a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Columbus filed in Federal Court.

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