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.
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.
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.
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
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