For more than a decade, the U-S EPA has been demanding that the city of Akron stop dumping raw sewage into the Cuyahoga River. And for about a decade, the city has been offering plans to take care of the problem.
The problem is combined sewer overflows - or CSO’s- pipes that by design combine storm water runoff with raw sewage. In a heavy rain, the sewer pipes can’t handle the load and it overflows directly into the Cuyahoga or the Little Cuyahoga. Environmentalist David Beach with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History says they’re a legacy of systems built 70 to 100 years ago.
“In older cities and especially cities around the Great Lakes the old sewer systems were designed with one pipe that conveys both sewage and storm water. It’s way too expensive to separate that system now but we can work to contain the overflows and treat them before they get into our rivers and Lake Erie, our drinking water supply.”
More than 770 cities across the country still have this old system of sewers. Akron has 34 of the overflows.
The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District covering primarily Cuyahoga County has 126 of them, spilling into the Cuyahoga and into Lake Erie. It’s begun a 3 billion dollar project to capture that waste in tunnels and treat it. Akron has a similar plan that would cost about 890 million dollars. Akron officials say about $270 million of that will be spent on updates they would have made regardless. The cleanup plan was in an agreement with the state and federal EPA. Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic:
“We worked with the Ohio EPA as the U.S. EPA’s designated agency and reached a very good deal.”
But in March of 2011, U.S. District Judge John Adams rejected the agreement because it would take too long to finish and did not set down specific dates for partial progress. Plusquellic had been arguing with the EPA mandates for a decade only to reach an agreement and then have the judge throw it out..
“A federal judge can implement something over all the experts in Washington, three times now, and we’re still trying to meet his arbitrary requirements.”
A member of Akron’s technical advisory board on this issue is Elaine Marsh of the environmental group Friends of the Crooked River. While the city’s earlier proposals had suggested a limit on overflows, Marsh says they now agree to zero overflows
“The interesting thing about zero emissions is that no place in the country has as strict limits on the amount combined sewer overflow can contribute to a river system”
The new deal keeps the finish date at 2027 but nails down completion dates for many interim steps. In an October hearing on the consent decree Judge Adams listened to the city’s construction consultant David Haywood describe the plan and then asked him “Can this schedule be shorter?” Haywood replied “No, we wouldn’t be able to reach zero overflows.” The judge then questioned the engineer’s plans on what section to tackle first and in what order catch basins will be built along the two rivers.
Capturing waste water for later treatment
The city will build ten more storage basins and two huge tunnels to collect storm water. The first will be over a mile long and start near Children’s Hospital. It will capture over 25 million gallons and empty it into a new treatment plant to be built near the confluence of the Cuyahoga and Little Cuyahoga rivers.
Akron will also pay $500m in fines plus another $900m that is earmarked for the project to remove the Brecksville Dam in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Even without the judge’s OK and a final agreement, Akron has been building storage basins to alleviate the problem. One called Rack 40 has eliminated about one third of the overflows to the river. Something that Marsh has noticed while canoeing.
“I no longer any infections in my finger nails which may have been related to the very high bacteria content in the river.”
Much higher sewer rates
Whenever a final agreement is reached, sewer rates are sure to rise dramatically. City officials once predicted they’ll quadruple. Plusquellic recently said they’ll go up 2 to 2 ½ times.
David Beach argues the sewer rates aren’t that large compared with many monthly bills and he says both Akron and Cleveland need clean water.
“The great cities of the world that are moving forward are aggressively dealing with their environmental problems and successful cities will be clean and sustainable in the future.”
And as Elaine Marsh remarked, it’s important to build infrastructure right the first time because they’re very expensive and difficult to retrofit.