Cincinnati and Hamilton County rush to deal on 45-year County take-over of Sewer District

Infighting between Cincinnati and Hamilton County has gotten in the way of implementing sewer consent decree projects that would clean some of the worst polluted water in the United States. By the Sewer Districts own reckoning, over 8 billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with rain water, go into the Ohio River, Mill Creek and Muddy Creek. The Sewer District continually violates the Clean Water Act, exceeds standards by millions and continues to maintain illegal Sanitary Sewer Overflows.

Sierra Club remains concerned that the creation of a new five-member board of City of Cincinnati (2) and Hamilton County (3) appointed members to oversee operations, recreates the same potential for conflict. “Supermajorities” (4of 5) are required for major decisions; supermajority requirements tend to prevent, rather than encourage projects. The commitment letter seeks to let the City out of the consent decree, yet maintains a level of control that could interfere with consent decree work. These delays will add to the City’s prediction that a number of consent decree projects will already be late. The importance of the consent decree work needs to have primacy in the new agreement, but currently doesn’t. At the same time, the commitment letter also leaves the dispute about asset ownership up in the air.

We sought to have the deadline extended to allow for more consideration of this 45-year deal to fix it and allow other options to be explored. While the deadline was extended from the original 1 week, it did not allow sufficient time for the public to be more fully informed and consider other options.

The mediation between the City and County, which led to the commitment letter, was under a gag order by the judge assigned to the consent decree. The next set of projects to be completed by the Sewer District, under the consent decree, were due to US EPA on June 30. The County requested, and may still want, a one year delay in submitting this set of commitments for work that begins in 2019. US EPA, at this point, has granted a 4-month extension until October 31, 2017. Bizarrely, the City and County will not release even a draft of the Phase 2 plan for public review (beyond the list created in 2010 which has most likely changed in at least some respects.)

Sierra Club is also concerned about the status of verbal commitments made by the current management to businesses and residents about sewer projects. Will they be honored by the future management?

Thanks to diligent and fast work by Sierra Club attorneys and many members of the public, some changes were made to the commitment letter, over the weekend before the Monday morning vote. Sierra Club offered draft language, some of which was accepted. We appreciate members of Council and the Commission’s willingness to meet and discuss issues of concern about this 45 year agreement.