U.S. reaches settlement with City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County resolving sewer violations

Dec. 3, 2003
The U.S. government has reached a settlement with the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio, regarding some long-standing sewer system violations.

WASHINGTON, D.C., Dec. 3, 2003 -- The Justice Department, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Ohio and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) announced a final settlement with the Board of Commissioners of Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati that will end long-standing sewer system violations and address raw sewage backing up into residents' basements.

Under this settlement and a previous partial settlement lodged with the Court in February 2002, the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) is expected to spend more than a billion dollars to bring its aging sewer system into compliance with the Clean Water Act and other pertinent laws and regulations.

For years, the city and county have discharged untreated sewage when it rains through overflow pipes from its sanitary sewers, or sanitary sewer outfalls, including some that were constructed long ago in MSD's aging sanitary sewer system. Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), it is illegal to discharge untreated wastewater from sanitary sewers. EPA estimates that there are at least 40,000 sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) nationally each year.

The untreated sewage from these overflows can contaminate waters with bacteria, pathogens and other harmful pollutants, causing serious water quality problems. It can also backup into basements, damage property and threaten public health.

MSD has also caused significant additional pollution of the Ohio River and local streams from combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Significant portions of Cincinnati's sewer collection system (like those of many older cities) are "combined systems." That is, the system accepts not only sewage but also stormwater when it rains.

When the combined sewers get too full, they overflow. Cincinnati's CSOs discharge an estimated six billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with rainwater each year. Although defendants have a permit for their CSOs, the plaintiffs complaint alleges that defendants' discharges do not comply with the permit's terms.

Inadequate capacity in MSD's system has not only caused improper discharges into local waterways, but of even greater concern are the many releases of untreated sewage that have occurred into people's basements and yards. These sewage releases are dangerous to the health of people who come into contact with the waste, and Cincinnati residents have spent large amounts of money to clean up their basements and replace ruined furniture and belongings.

"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," said Tom Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resource Division. "We are pleased the State of Ohio and ORSANCO joined us as plaintiffs in this settlement, as it will go a long way toward improving the health not only of the Ohio River and its tributaries in the Cincinnati area, but also of the people who live in the area."

"This settlement is a premier example of how EPA's rigorous enforcement of the Clean Water Act is bringing about monumental environmental benefits," said John Peter Suarez, the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at EPA. "As a direct result of this settlement, thousands of residents in the greater Cincinnati area are going to be protected from public health threats due to sewer overflows."

Today's final settlement completes the relief obtained by the 2002 partial consent decree. The 2002 partial decree required defendants to address certain specified SSOs and to develop with a plan to eliminate the rest of them. This final decree requires defendants to carry out that SSO plan and to develop and implement a plan to bring their CSOs and wastewater treatment plants into compliance with the law.

The final decree requires that all work under the two major plans must be completed as quickly as possible, but no later than February 2022. However, the decree allows defendants to request additional time if the projects are estimated to cost more than $1.5 billion dollars, although the schedule must still be as expeditious as possible, and is subject to the approval of EPA, the State, and ORSANCO. This approach balances the need to bring defendants into compliance as soon as possible, with the reality that these improvements will be very expensive for the ratepayers.

The MSD of Greater Cincinnati is a department of the City of Cincinnati. The District serves more than 800,000 customers throughout Cincinnati and Hamilton County and operates seven major wastewater treatment plants. Over 200,000 separate sewer connections tie into MSD's 3,000-plus miles of sanitary and combined sewers.

"This is an equitable resolution to a complex issue and helps protect the health of Hamilton County residents and the environment," said Attorney General Jim Petro. "The settlement provides the City of Cincinnati and the Hamilton County Commissioners with reasonable incentives and enforcement agencies with appropriate tools to ensure compliance with environmental laws."

"For years, Cincinnati has struggled to address environmentally damaging sewer overflows and other problems," said Ohio EPA Director Christopher Jones. "This settlement will change that course, as a result of a cooperative effort between state, local and federal agencies to clean Cincinnati's waterways."

The Justice Department and the federal EPA, often joined by the States, are taking an active lead in municipal CWA enforcement across the country. The United States has already entered into CWA settlements with numerous municipalities, including Toledo; Atlanta; Baton Rouge; Boston; Honolulu; Jefferson County, Ala.; Miami; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans and San Diego.

ORSANCO was created in 1948 by an Interstate Compact among eight states in the Ohio River Basin, and ORSANCO has independent authority to regulate discharges and abate water pollution impacting the Ohio River and interstate tributaries. Congress consented to the Compact in 1940. In addition to participating in this settlement, ORSANCO has worked with EPA, the various member states, and local communities along the Ohio River to abate water pollution and ensure that discharges comply with the Compact and ORSANCO's pollution control standards.

The settlement was lodged in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Ohio and is subject to a 30-day public comment period. Because the parties asked the court to hold off its review of the initial partial decree until the final settlement was completed, both consent decrees are subject to final court approval.

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