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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution
Copyright, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution - 2001

Saturday, August 18, 2001

METRO

Sewer fix costly for Atlantans
JULIE B. HAIRSTON
STAFF

Atlanta is far from alone in its struggle to clean up its sewers and pay for the fix.

The antiquated sewer chickens are coming home to costly roosts in cities nationwide. These are older cities built around systems similar to Atlanta's that combine sanitary sewer wastes with runoff from streets and parking lots when it rains. For decades, these systems simply dumped raw sewage directly into waterways whenever heavy rains overwhelmed the ability of sewer pipes to carry the load.

But that's not legal or acceptable anymore.

Under a court order to clean up the city's waste water, Atlanta
officials this week announced a billion-dollar plan to be carried out
during the next six years. The plan was developed under a court order
and the construction it calls for will be strictly supervised by
state and federal environmental officials.

By the end of this year, Atlantans probably will be paying another
$1.55 --- a 5 percent increase on the $31 monthly average residential
sewer bill, according to Deputy Public Works Commissioner David
Peters. Within 25 years, that bill could soar to more than $100 a
month to pay for all the planned improvements to the sewer system.

The people in Richmond can sympathize. Their utility bills from
the Virginia city, which include water, sewer and natural gas,
average about $60 a month, the highest in the state.

"We've been getting complaints for years," said Richmond Vice
Mayor Rudy McCollum.

With 500 to 600 miles of combined sewers in the city, Richmond
officials have so far spent about $150 million to clean up what it is
putting into the James River. They expect to spend about $250 million
more, McCollum said.

To try to keep sewer rates down, Richmond puts money from its
general fund, mainly property and sales taxes, into the sewer fund.
The city also has a Metro Care fund that solicits donations that help
pay utilities for people with limited incomes.

"We have a very lenient shut-off policy," McCollum said.

Indianapolis is looking at a billion-dollar fix for its 800 miles
of combined sewers. City officials are searching for ways to keep the
costs from doubling, or more, the city's average residential sewer
bill.

"I am hoping we can get some grants and we are in the process of
looking at different options," said City Councilwoman Beulah
Coughenour.

The clamor for relief has reached such a din that groups like the
National League of Cities have stepped in to help. Carol Kocheisen,
principal legislative counsel for the league, said member cities have
estimated that there is a $23 billion gap between the improvements
federal environmental regulators are asking cities to make and the
local monies available to pay for those improvements.

"A lot of places have gone to monthly billing because people can't
afford to pay quarterly bills anymore," Kocheisen said.

Within the next six months, Kocheisen said the league hopes to
have legislation introduced in Congress that will offer some help to
cities with costly infrastructure needs. The legislation would offer
grants and low-interest loans that will help save money ratepayers
will have to provide otherwise.

But Kocheisen admits no money is likely to become available for
two or three years. Even that "may be a little optimistic," she said.

ON THE WEB: The Water Infrastructure Network: www.win-water.org/

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