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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article was submitted for the January / February 2003  issue of the newsletter.

My River, The Sewer

By , COG ExCom member

Do you live or work in downtown Columbus, or attend festivals there? Have you smelled a fecal odor there? Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are responsible. On most days there is a rotten smell outside 122 S. Front St.--the address of the central offices of the Ohio EPA. OEPA is the agency responsible for enforcing Clean Water Act laws that would prevent these overflows!

The smell is coming from the combined sewer openings at the curb drains and storm sewers along the street. What you smell can harm you! The smell contains methane, a gaseous hydrocarbon as well as some other nasty chemicals. Most of the methane comes from decaying sewage that can and has killed sewer workers across the country. In third world countries, raw sewage is dumped into the rivers and people eat the fish. In downtown USA we do the same.

Over 100 communities in Ohio have combined sewer systems. Pursuant to US EPA regulations, these communities must ensure that combined sewer discharges do not violate Ohio's water quality standards. No doubt discharging raw sewage into an Ohio river violates the standards, but the dumping continues.

The sewage in our streams that results from these overflows causes bacteria levels hundreds of times in excess of the water quality standards for E. coli. And E. coli is only an indicator for a broad array of pathogenic bacteria and viruses that can cause infectious diseases in humans. Some of these diseases may be life threatening to the very young, the elderly, and to those with compromised immune systems. These infectious diseases may be spread to those who have had no contact with contaminated water but have had contact with those originally infected from the water. The sewage also threatens aquatic life. Modeling of CSOs indicates that a summer rain can create a dead zone by downtown areas where dissolved oxygen levels are nearly zero for several hours. Most fish cannot survive under these conditions.

While combined sewer systems are a legacy of shortsighted engineering decisions made in the first half of the 20th Century, our shortsightedness continues. As designed, CSOs were able to handle a rainfall of approximately 0.75 inch. The sewer systems were oversized to allow space for storm water. However, municipalities continued to accept new sanitary sewage that used up the space reserved for storm water. Now many combined sewer systems overflow with only a 0.1 inch rainfall.

Cities and towns have failed to address sewers in the same way as other parts of their infrastructure, i.e., roads and electricity, because sewers are not as visible to the public. Thanks to a mandate by US EPA and a long-delayed recognition (perhaps) by Ohio EPA, communities now must look at spending money to upgrade sewer systems. They are finally being forced to address the long-term prospects for sewer collection and treatment capacity. Because so little has been done to improve infrastructure for so long, upgrade costs will be much higher and will hit all at once.

Despite regular exposure of our residents to dangerous pathogens and periodic fish kills, municipalities and OEPA continue to authorize more sewage discharges into overloaded collection and treatment systems. They reason that the capacity of a system should only be based on dry weather flows. Without explanation, they ignore the impact of wet weather events- despite the threat to public health. While each new discharge into the sewer system increases the overflows, the aggregate impacts are devastating, especially to the integrity of our inner city and urban neighborhoods that bear the brunt of CSOs.

In Columbus, OEPA authorizes the construction of new sewer systems that flow into the city’s sanitary sewer system, then into a combined sewer system, and finally into a treatment plant. The treatment plants are so overloaded that an estimated three billion gallons of raw, untreated sewage and industrial waste flow into the Scioto River yearly. Even when the plant had available capacity, sewage that was stored in a temporary holding tank was allowed to flow to the river instead of being returned to the treatment plant.

Every week OEPA has been approving permits that make the CSO problem worse. The Sierra Club’s legal challenge to Columbus CSO illegalities is vitally important to make necessary changes happen. This action has been dove-tailing nicely with a petition by the Ohio Sierra Club and 3 other environmental organizations to have the US EPA to take over the enforcement authority of Ohio EPA. This is forcing OEPA to take some notice of its responsibilities.

In third world countries, raw sewage is dumped into the rivers and people eat the fish. In downtown USA we do the same.
Every week OEPA has been approving permits that make the CSO problem worse.

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