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Central Ohio Group Issues

Sierra Club Sewer Suit Encourages Reluctant Parties to Protect Public Health


Sierra Club, 36 West Gay Street Suite 314, Columbus OH 43215
TEL: (614) 461-0734, FAX: (614) 461-0730


MAY 22, 2002

(614) 890-7865
MARC CONTE (614) 461-0734

COLUMBUS - Pressured by the threat of a Sierra Club lawsuit, the City of Columbus agreed on Monday to reduce its illegal practice of discharging sewage into local waterways. In an apparent attempt to avoid the Sierra Club's Clean Water Act suit, the City reached an agreement with the Ohio EPA to pay a civil penalty of $250,000 for violations and pledged an additional $250,000 towards environmentally beneficial projects. In addition, the City agreed to improve its practices to reduce the amount of sewage that is discharged into rivers and streams.

"It's unfortunate that it takes the threat of a lawsuit to remove sewage from our water, but apparently that's what it takes to make the Ohio EPA take action," said Pat Marida, Chair of the Central Ohio Sierra Club. "The fact that the Ohio EPA has made this agreement with Columbus in such a short time is an effort to avoid citizen participation, and is astonishing. After 30 years of violations, a plan to spend $1/2 billion has been arrived at in a matter of a couple of months."

The sewer system in Columbus, Ohio has been overflowing regularly for over 30 years. As a result, millions of gallons of raw sewage containing high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, toxic industrial waste, and other pollutants discharge to the Scioto River and Olentangy River in downtown Columbus, as well as numerous other waterways. Before Monday's agreement, the city regularly discharged raw sewage from at least 120 separate locations, without a Clean Water Act permit. Within the last 5 years, raw sewage has backed up into the basements of 10,000 Columbus residents.

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 un-numbered sanitary sewer overflows.

"Apart from raw sewage in your house being sickening, it's a danger to your health and your children's health," said Marida. Given the reluctance of both the City of Columbus and the Ohio EPA to protect public health before the threat of our lawsuit, we remain skeptical. We reserve the right to continue to enforce the Clean Water Act if this agreement is unsatisfactory from the public viewpoint. This morning we learned that the city's agreement with Ohio EPA is still in draft form, so City Council voted on a measure that has not yet been completed."

Columbus' recent capital improvement dollars have mostly been spent building new sewers, which fuels unplanned sprawl and increases the burden on a system already over capacity, while routine maintenance and repairs of overflows and basement backups have been lacking.

"Despite Columbus' statements that it is a national leader, through our records search we have discovered that Columbus has 5 times the number of sewer overflows as the average utility, said Jeff Cox, Sierra Club member and former Columbus sewer employee. "Exemplary utilities do not operate under consent decrees, nor are they assessed fines."

Sierra Club activists have been working to address the problems plaguing the Columbus sewer system, and other overburdened sewer systems in the state. Before resorting to a Clean Water Act lawsuit, Sierra Club members tried to improve the Columbus sewer system by testifying at hearings, attempting to get input into the Columbus Stormwater Master Plan, opposing proposed annexations and rezonings that would increase sewer system hook-ups, and opposing proposed development in floodplain areas.

Index to articles on the Columbus sewers issue.

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