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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article was submitted for the July/August 2002 issue of the Ohio Sierran.

Sierra Club v. City of Columbus

Public Records Search Turns Up Interesting Letter about Sanitary Sewer Overflows

By , Central Ohio Group Chair

The Central Ohio Sierra Club’s public records search turned up an April 4, 2002 letter from Chris Jones, Director of Ohio EPA to Governor Taft, 3/4 of which was blackened out. The remaining paragraph read: “City of Columbus - Late last week the Sierra Club announced its intention to sue the City of Columbus for Clean Water Act violations associated with sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) in the Columbus water system. Under the Clean Water Act, they must give the City of Columbus 60-days to correct the violations before they can file a lawsuit. If we reach agreement on a consent order within the 60-days, the Sierra Club will be barred from filing suit. As you might imagine, the City of Columbus is very interested in reaching agreement with us on a consent decree.”

Why does our own Environmental Protection Agency want to keep the Sierra Club from protecting the environment?

On March 28, 2002, the Sierra Club filed a 60-Day Notice of Intent to Sue the City of Columbus for its illegal sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs). The city rejected the Club’s formal request for a negotiated settlement, which would have been advantageous for both parties. Instead, in an attempt to block the lawsuit, Columbus spent 2 months negotiating in secret with Ohio EPA. Columbus filed a consent decree, agreed to by the OEPA, with the courts on May 24. If the court considers this consent decree a satisfactory remedy, there can be no lawsuit.

It is a tremendous victory that the Club’s threat of a lawsuit has gotten the city in 2 months to come up with a $497 million plan for dealing with SSOs. Columbus has ignored its SSO problem for 30 years, since the Clean Water Act made them illegal in 1972. The OEPA is complicit by failing to enforce the law or fine Columbus during this time.

Sewage overflows can result in direct contact with pathogenic bacteria and viruses, thereby posing a significant public health risk to area residents. This consent decree will not completely eliminate Columbus’ violations of the Clean Water Act and does not provide a fixed date to end the violations of law. It greatly reduces the amount of fines that Columbus should pay for its violations. We do not know if and how it will be enforced. It appears that the decree may not have been completed. We have yet to see important parts of it, which we need to do in order to decide our next legal steps.

The Columbus consent decree allows business as usual, with no limitation on new sewers or new connections to sewers that are currently in violation of the law due to overloaded conditions. The Sierra Club’s review of the city’s records shows that over the last six years Columbus has dumped an average of 2. 9 billion gallons of sewage per year as bypasses from its sewage treatment plants. That is in addition to pollution from the numbered and unnumbered sanitary sewer overflows. The Club has found around 900 SSOs that Columbus is not tracking. There is a fine of $25,000 for each individual SSO overflow per day. Within the last 5 years, raw sewage has backed up into the basements of 10,000 Columbus residents-and these are only what was reported to the city. Through the Club’s records search we have discovered that Columbus has 5 times the number of sewer overflows as the average wastewater treatment plant.

Columbus City Council voted 6-0 on May 20 in favor of the consent decree, even though it had not been finalized and they had not seen it. No council person stood up and asked why the Department of Sewers and Drains is in violation of the law such that it has to be taken to court by the OEPA.

On May 22, the Sierra Club notified the City of Columbus of its intent to sue over Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) violations. CSOs are pipes designed to allow sewage to overflow into stormwater under certain conditions.

At a press conference on May 30, the Sierra Club notified Columbus of its intent to sue regarding the city’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4s). Columbus has illegal cross-connections of sewage pipes directly into stormwater pipes, which flow untreated into area rivers and streams. These cross-connections were intentionally installed by the City and are a direct violation of its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and Storm Water Permits. Both the CSO and the MS4 issues are not covered by the recent Consent Decree between the City of Columbus and the Ohio EPA.

Index to articles on the Columbus sewers issue.

Why does our own Environmental Protection Agency want to keep the Sierra Club from protecting the environment?
It is a tremendous victory that the Club’s threat of a lawsuit has gotten the city in 2 months to come up with a $497 million plan for dealing with SSOs. 

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