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.
to articles on the Columbus sewers issue.