BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — The Board of Lucas County Commissioners plans to investigate Maumee’s actions in regard to the illegal discharge of sewage into the Maumee River.
On October 27, the commissioners announced that the Commission on Maumee River Discharges would study how the unpermitted discharges occurred for more than two decades without detection or knowledge of city and state officials.
In July 2020, Maumee self-reported to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that since at least 1996, combined sewer overflow was being discharged into the river during heavy rain events without being reported and without proper permitting. Federal law requires that each time a discharge occurs, it is to be reported to the 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.
In 1984, Maumee’s sanitary sewer discharge limit was modified to 25 million gallons per year while work was underway to separate the system.
According to Dina Pierce of the Ohio EPA, in 1996, the city notified the Ohio EPA that it had complied with the agency’s order to separate its combined sewer systems and that the city no longer had to discharge because it was collecting wastewater and sending it to the Lucas County wastewater treatment plant.
From that point forward, Maumee was not allowed to have overflows from its sewer collection system, and the EPA had not received notification of any overflows from Maumee, nor were any disclosed during Ohio EPA MS-4 permit inspections – which prohibit non-storm water discharges into the storm system – until July 2020, she said. That is when a city service division staff member reported the violations to city administrator Patrick Burtch, who started working for the city on March 1, 2020. Burtch reported the information to Maumee Mayor Richard Carr, who then instructed him to report the violations immediately to the Ohio EPA.
The newly formed Comm-ission on Maumee River Discharges will study the history, nature and extent of Maumee’s handling of its storm and sanitary sewer overflows and its communication with the Ohio EPA from 1985 to the most current Director’s Final Findings and Orders from July 2021.
President of the Board of Lucas County Commissioners Tina Skeldon Wozniak discussed the purpose of forming a commission during a news conference at Middlegrounds Metropark in downtown Toledo.
“We believe that the commission can help push, ensure, advocate for the EPA to take notice as well as the state and federal government because this will require major resources to do some of these fixes,” she said. “The inaction and the lack of transparency about the tens of millions of gallons of sewage that was discharged into the Maumee River has resulted in this call for action to protect all of our interests, and this is the process that we have determined is the best way to do so.”
Mayor Carr was notified of the press conference minutes before it took place. He said that if the commissioners wanted answers, they could have reached out directly to Maumee officials, but they didn’t.
“If they are really interested, they would have asked to sit down with us, but they never did. So, what do they do instead – they call a press conference,” Carr said. “I am disappointed but not surprised. This is what the county commissioners do.”
The commission will include attorney Fritz Byers, who will serve as chair; Michael Beazley, Oregon city administrator; Rex Huffman, Northwest-ern Water & Sewer District; Thomas Bridgeman, director of the Lake Erie Center; Susan Heywood, attorney and Maumee resident; Warren Henry, retired city of Toledo water plant manager; Patekka Bannister, commissioner of Toledo plant operations, department of public utilities; and Bryan Latta, attorney. Rob Michaels, an attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center based in Chicago, will serve as a consultant.
The commission will utilize Ohio Records Laws and “all other procedures available to it, to develop the fullest possible factual record on these subjects,” according to a statement released by the commissioners at the press conference.
Carr said that both the state and federal EPA agencies are already conducting investigations into the situation and that city officials are fully cooperating. In addition, because the matter could involve former city employees, he would not be at liberty to meet with the county commission, which he says has no jurisdiction over the situation.
Moreover, Carr questioned the commission’s intent to advocate for the health and safety of the western basin of the Lake Erie region when it is composed of several members from Toledo, which also discharges sewage into the Maumee River.
For example, according to the city of Toledo Department of Public Utilities website, Toledo discharged 231 million gallons of combined sewer overflow (CSO) during the heavy rainfall on two single days – September 22 and 23 of this year. While those discharges are permitted through agreements with the EPA, Carr believes that the commission’s intent is not truly geared to addressing the problem of pollution in the river, but rather singling out Maumee for political purposes.
Maumee discharged 1 million gallons of CSO during that same time period, he added.
“How can you say that you are investigating everybody if you have four or five people from one area doing the investigation?” Carr asked.
Lucas County Commiss-ioner Pete Gerken said the situation in Maumee undermines the credibility of cities like Toledo and deserves, “a much deeper investigation than Maumee has provided.”
“The wave-of-the-hand approach that Maumee has taken – ‘Well, it happened, and we talked to the EPA and it’s taken care of’ – doesn’t fly,” Gerken said.
He also said that the Ohio EPA should have provided proper oversight.
“The Ohio EPA has not been forthright in how they have been monitoring this,” he said. “I am not saying that all of the culpability is on Maumee. The Ohio EPA has got some questions to answer, as well.”
Under the new Ohio EPA order, Maumee has begun implementing a corrective action plan that includes sanitary system mapping to investigate overlaps between the sanitary and storm system, flow monitoring to measure the amount of water in the system and smoke testing to find incorrect connections.
Lucas County Commiss-ioner Gary Byers, who is a Maumee resident and former Maumee Municipal Court judge, said the purpose of the commission is not to cast blame on individuals, but rather to understand what happened.
“If you don’t look to the past and understand what happened, it is hard to fix it in the future,” he said. “We are hopeful that the city of Maumee will cooperate, and we are hopeful that the answers derived from this commission will be meaningful in a way that we will learn the lessons for our entire community.”
He was aware that Maumee had a problem with the sewer system but thought that it had been properly addressed and corrected in the mid-1980s.
“I am a resident of Maumee and I was of the understanding that this was done, so it was a surprise to all of us,” he said.
Commission chair Fritz Byers acknowledged that natural events result in the need to discharge, but he said that is not the focus of the commission.