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Central Ohio Group Issues

This article appeared in the July/August/Septemberr 2002 issue of the Ohio Sierran.

Sierra Club Sues Columbus For Sewage Discharges


On July 24,2002, the Sierra Club filed suit in federal court under Section 505 of the Clean Water Act against the City of Columbus, to force the City to reduce raw sewage discharges from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) (where sewage mixes with stormwater in the same pipe). The suit also addresses Columbus’ illegal discharges of raw sewage to the stormwater system and the city’s bypassing of its 2 wastewater treatment plants and discharging billions of gallons of untreated raw sewage and industrial waste into the Scioto River and other local rivers and streams.

Legal and expert fees are expensive. But the benefits far outweigh the costs. Columbus has agreed to spend half a billion dollars because of the Club’s work. We need to make sure that this money is spent correctly! Please make your tax-deductible contribution to the Sierra Club Foundation and mail it to Ken Johnsen, 6760 Hayhurst St., Worthington, OH 43085. Thank you!

Under the Clean Water Act, citizens can file 60-day letters of intent to sue polluters for illegal discharges into waterways. The 60-day period is supposed to be a time when either the polluter stops its action or sits down with the citizens to negotiate a suitable remedy, Columbus has so far refused to negotiate with the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club sent Columbus three 60-day notices. After the first notice, which dealt with sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), Columbus and the Ohio EPA entered into a consent decree in Ohio state court. The Sierra Club was not told of these negotiations and did not get a chance to participate in shaping the terms of the decree. In 59 days, the City and the State entered into a “voluntary” a "prosecution" arrangement, called a consent decree, whereby Columbus would spend half a billion dollars to address SSOs (not eliminate them) and pay a $500,000 fine. The Sierra Club’s CSO lawsuit should give the Club a seat at the table to begin to negotiate an appropriate solution to the City’s long-standing, wet-weather sewage overflow problems, with court oversight of the remedy.

The Sierra Club is seeking a prompt end to the City’s practices of discharging raw sewage into the area rivers and streams. Ratepayers and businesses pay for safe and proper treatment of their sewage and they deserve to get what they pay for and not environmentally damaging raw sewer overflows.

The Sierra Club is in favor of smart growth and development, not sprawl-inducing trunk sewers, which are subsidized by inner city ratepayers. To the extent that new trunk sewers built by the City are upstream from overflowing SSOs, CSOs and undersized treatment plants, the City needs to fix its aging infrastructure first and not make the situation worse through sprawl-inducing new pipes.

In many areas of the country, municipalities are allowed to add new sewers as they reduce the amount of stormwater leaking into their old sewers. The bottom line is that we really need to fix sewers first, as the public health problem deserves immediate attention. We also need careful planning for development, which does not exist in Columbus. In other states such as Pennsylvania, all cities must show that they have their sewage under control before they are allowed to extend sewers.

COG owes a great debt to ExCom member Jeff Cox, who has done much of the public records research that has led to our discovery of the enormous sewage dumping for which Columbus is responsible. We also wish to thank attorneys and Club members Tom Nagel and John Sproat who are doing local legal work pro bono.

Below are some of the facts we have uncovered:

Columbus has had over 10,000 reported sewage backups into basements in the last 5 years. The city routinely denies responsibility, when in most instances they are at fault. Columbus also refuses to pay damages, telling people to sue. The Sierra Club believes there are many unreported backups, since many people do not know they can report, and others give up reporting after getting no restitution from the city previously. Some backups have caused tens of thousands of dollars of damages to individual homes.

Columbus has at least 106 monitored sanitary sewer overflows. These are illegal, but are tracked and reported, at least part of the time. Under the Clean Water Act, the city could be fined $25,000 for each location for each day of overflow. Reported overflows in the last 5 years could add up to fines of over $2 million.

Columbus has hundreds of sanitary sewer overflows that are not tracked or monitored, a very serious violation of the Clean Water Act. Sewer overflows are a serious threat to public health. Fecal coliform, E. Coli and other bacteria and viruses threaten wildlife and human health. Chemicals and effluents from industry also go into our streams untreated.

Over 3 BILLION gallons of raw sewage flow into the Scioto yearly from Columbus' 2 sewage treatment plants alone.

Index to articles on the Columbus sewers issue.

Columbus has agreed to spend half a billion dollars because of the Club’s work.
The bottom line is that we really need to fix sewers first, as the public health problem deserves immediate attention.

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