BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — For more than two decades, the city of Maumee has illegally discharged sewage and other untreated water into the Maumee River.
The situation came to light when an unidentified city employee informed city administrator Patrick Burtch and City Law Director David Busick. Both men were hired last year and were not previously aware of the matter.
Maumee Mayor Richard Carr and Maumee City Council president Tim Pauken were then notified, and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was immediately contacted about the situation.
“As soon as we were told about it, we reported it. There was no other discussion,” Carr said.
Ohio EPA guidelines allow municipalities to discharge a standard amount of untreated water into a water system each year. Such a discharge usually results from a heavy rainfall that overburdens the system. The law requires that each time a discharge occurs, it is to be reported to the Ohio EPA within five days of the event. In addition, the city is responsible for reporting potential safety issues to communities downstream, in accordance with Ohio EPA guidelines.
Under typical circumstances, a dedicated storm sewer has a network of pipes designed to move rainwater and other clear water to nearby rivers, streams and lakes. A dedicated sanitary sewer system has a network of smaller pipes intended to move household sewage to wastewater treatment plants, where it is treated and discharged.
Maumee’s sanitary sewer system water moves through a series of pumping stations before it is carried to the Lucas County Water Resource Recovery Facility, which is located on River Road near The Shops at Fallen Timbers. Maumee’s storm water discharges into the Maumee River at eight discharge points, including one located west of the Fort Meigs Memorial Bridge.
In accordance with the Clean Water Act of 1972, both the sanitary sewer and storm systems are supposed to function separately. While Maumee has regularly invested in routine maintenance and extended the life of pipes by lining them with high-performing materials, in many cases storm water drainage continues to run through sanitary sewer lines.
In 1984, the Ohio EPA granted Maumee a sanitary sewer discharge allotment of 25 million gallons annually. That agreement was established through a series of discussions between the EPA and city officials who were tasked with monitoring the system and making necessary changes to stay within those guidelines, Carr said.
Since at least 1996, however, the city of Maumee has been discharging a level of untreated water into the Maumee River that has far exceeded the allotted amount. Moreover, some individuals from the Department of Public Service Sewer Division, who are responsible for tracking sewer discharge levels, failed to self-report the annual sanitary sewer overflow incidences as required by law, said Busick.
By some estimates, as much as 150 million gallons of untreated water may have been discharged each year into the river without ever being reported to the EPA, according to one city official with knowledge of the situation.
Those violations were unrealized by Mayor Carr and current members of council and went unreported by former city staff, according to a statement released by the city.
Further, all correspondence between the EPA and city staff regarding those initial agreements is not available, Burtch said.
“We have no record of documentation,” he said.
Busick said that future legal action is possible.
“These are potential serious charges that could be leveled against certain individuals,” Busick said.
In 2017, the city had considered implementing a $35 million storm sewer system, which at the time was believed to address some of the issues involved in the overburdened system. Approximately $1 million was spent on design services for the project, but the project itself was never budgeted. In addition, the proposed storm water system would not have addressed the real issue, which is sanitary sewer discharge volume during heavy storm events.
The project also would not have addressed the compliance requirements under the Clean Water Act and Ohio Revised Code Chapter 6111, which governs water pollution and states that sewage, sludge, sludge materials, industrial waste or other waste may not be placed in any waters of the state.
Under a new Ohio EPA Order, which Maumee City Council approved at the July 6 meeting, the city has agreed to an action plan with required mandated maintenance upgrades and infrastructure replacement guidelines. The city has 180 days to document the schedule for public safety dissemination, 270 days to create an overflow response plan and three years to conduct a longitudinal sewer system evaluation study (SSES) or capacity management operation and maintenance program, which is the system modeling program.
In addition to the order, the city must pay an Ohio EPA fine of $29,936, which can be applied to remediation steps.
Work to address the issue has already begun. For example, sanitary sewer system mapping is currently underway to investigate the extent of overlaps between the sanitary and storm systems. A member of the city staff is also in the process of obtaining the needed licensure as required by law to handle some of the work. In the interim, the city has hired a consultant with the proper licensure to help with the process.
Maumee Property Owners Will Soon See Increases In Water And Sewer Rates
Impact To Residents
Full compliance with the new EPA mandates resulting from the discharging violations will not come cheaply. By some estimates, the city could spend at least $100 million over the next 30 years to address the problem.
Repair work will include disconnecting systems from the sanitary lines and reconnecting them to the storm sewer. In some areas, the sanitary system is over 100 years old.
Unfortunately, consumers will bear the brunt of those higher costs, as water and sewer rates are expected to climb 60 to 64 percent over the next five years. While a majority of the additional costs are the result of the new mandates, the 2019 regional water agreement with Toledo is also adding to the increases.
The rates will increase immediately, as city council unanimously approved legislation on July 6 to begin raising water and sewer rates next month. With the increases, sewer rates for the average monthly household using 7,500 gallons of water will increase an estimated $31.00 per month and water rates for that same household will increase $3.00 per month. That means households could see an estimated average spike of $400 in annual water and sewer fees.
In addition to paying more for sewer and water, property owners will be required to make necessary repairs to separate their storm water from the sanitary system, which may include footer tiles, sump pumps and/or downspouts.
If the federal government passes an infrastructure package, the city will pursue federal and state funding opportunities to offset some of the costs.
Carr expressed his frustration with those former officials who failed to properly address the problem when it first began.
“It’s unfortunate that a plan of action was supposed to take place to correct the problem and it was never done – that’s inexcusable,” he said. “This is the one thing I get really angry about, to be put in this position from something that goes back to the 1980s that should have been done properly back then. If it had been, we wouldn’t be addressing it now.”
Maumee continues to discharge sewage into the river during extreme weather events; however, steps are being taken to mitigate that process as much as possible. According to an official statement from the city, the municipal water system remains safe for drinking, cooking and bathing.
Maumee is not alone in this problem as cities throughout the country grapple with the issue of aging, overburdened sewer systems. Cities including Chicago, Cleveland, Akron, Washington, D.C., and Lansing are just a few that are in the process of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address the problem.
In 2002, the city of Toledo reached an agreement with the U.S. EPA, the Department of Justice and the state of Ohio to make $433 million in improvements to its sewage treatment plant.
The Alliance for Great Lakes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization focused on protecting the natural waters of the Great Lakes, estimates that tens of billions of gallons of raw sewage and storm water is released into the Great Lakes every year.