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Cincinnati to Spend $1 Billion to Upgrade
Sewer System, Curb Discharges Under Pact

Cincinnati will spend more than $1 billion to upgrade its sewer system, which has discharged raw sewage into local waters, under a settlement reached with federal regulators, the Justice Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Dec. 3 (United States v. Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County, S.D. Ohio, no docket number available yet, 12/3/03).

The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati serves both the city and Hamilton County. EPA and the Justice Department said the sewer system operated by the district has discharged untreated sewage into nearby waterways during wet weather events "for years." These discharges have occurred through overflow pipes in the district's sanitary sewers as well as through outfalls built years ago. Combined sewer overflows, from systems that transport both sanitary sewage and stormwater, are responsible for about 6 billion gallons of raw sewage being discharged into nearby rivers and streams annually, the agencies said.

The discharges occur because of aging infrastructure and inadequate capacity to handle additional flows, especially during wet weather.


Permits Required

The Clean Water Act makes it illegal to discharge pollutants into U.S. waters without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. Cincinnati had permits for its CSOs, EPA and the Justice Department said, but the discharges violated the terms of the permits.
In February 2000, the city and county reached a partial settlement with EPA and Justice amounting to about $450 million to address the sanitary sewer overflow problems (United States v. Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County, S.D. Ohio, No. C1-02-107, 2/15/02; 33 DEN A-6, 2/19/02).

DOJ and EPA did not say how much the city and county were expected to spend under the agreement announced Dec. 3, but that combined with the 2002 settlement, the total would be more than $1 billion.

"The Justice Department is committed to enforcing our nation's clean water laws to protect human health and the environment for the residents of the greater Cincinnati region," Thomas Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in a statement.


Develop Plan

Under the consent agreement, Cincinnati will have to develop a plan to bring its CSOs and wastewater treatment plant into compliance with Clean Water Act regulations. This will be in addition to upgrades for the systems SSOs. All work must be completed by February 2022, the agreement said, unless the projects' cost exceed $1.5 billion. Then more time may be allowed, the agencies said.
Cities and other localities have been grappling with the problem of aging infrastructure, especially in light of growing populations and stricter environmental regulations. The Water Infrastructure Network, a coalition of municipalities, wastewater treatment officials, and others, estimated the cost of upgrades and maintenance for sewer systems at more than $23 billion annually for the next 20 years.

In an October 2002 analysis, EPA estimated the funding gap for wastewater and drinking water at about $534 billion over 20 years, about half of the $1 trillion estimated by WIN. However, municipalities and EPA officials have said that whichever figure is more accurate, it still represents a daunting amount of money.

Municipalities have been pushing for Congress to increase funding to cover the costs of preventing what they said could be a serious environmental and public health crisis. These groups also have been working with the agency to come up with ways for addressing the funding shortfall. EPA has supported a strategy that focuses on improved plant efficiency, more efficient use of water resources, and possible consolidation of wastewater treatment facilities, among other things.

Patrick Karney, the director of the Metropolitan Sewer District for Greater Cincinnati, testified before Congress in March 2001 that public utilities have had to learn to operate more like a business, especially in the face of increased competition from private entities. He could not be reached for comment Dec. 3.

By Susan Bruninga

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