Is there progress on Hamilton County’s compliance with the sewer consent decree?

sewer pipe

The most important thing in the August 2023 USEPA approval of the Phase 2A plan under the sewer overflow consent decree is the requirement that Hamilton County submit a Phase 2B plan by June 30, 2023.

The Phase 2 plan was originally due to USEPA in 2017 and the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County got a one-year extension to that. The city and county both submitted different Phase 2 plans in 2018, and that didn’t meet the basic consent decree requirement to submit a plan. Disagreements between the city and county and the court filings and orders caused delay and disrupted the USEPA’s ability to establish a plan if the submitted plan was not acceptable. Years of negotiation and delay resulted. USEPA is now “correcting” this problem by approving a Phase 2A plan (that does little) and requiring a full (all remedial measures) Phase 2B plan they can either approve or deny with comments.

The approved Phase 2A plan includes 5 projects which must be completed by 12/31/2024, totaling $65.5M. In the interim, costs have increased substantially.

The five projects are listed below are all due by 12/31/2024.

  1. LMWWTP Standby Power appears to be an asset management project to upgrade power system, but has no direct CSO/SSO benefit, but is a precursor to a future, unapproved project.
  2. CSO 402-406 Improvements will prevent some backflow and Ohio River intrusion into the Muddy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), often causing bypasses of untreated sewage at the WWTP. This project will alleviate some bypassing (discharge to the Ohio River) of untreated sewage.
  3. Mill Creek Diversion Chamber is intended for a future EHRT (Enhanced High Rate Treatment System) and is intended to tie into the Mill Creek and Auxiliary Mill Creek Interceptors. This project has no current, direct CSO/SSO benefit, but is a precursor to a future, unapproved project.
  4. Mill Creek Pump Station Design for EHRT is for design work for the proposed Pump Station. This project has no current, direct CSO/SSO benefit, but is a precursor to a future, unapproved project.
  5. East Branch Muddy Creek Interceptor, according to MSD’s bid document, the consultant will do a Business Case Evaluation, for the following problem. “This project will likely include relocation and replacement of approximately 32,100-feet of the interceptor, replacement and possible consolidation of four pump stations, …. and relocation of eleven combined sewer overflows (CSOs), if needed…. These assets are located within the floodplain of the Ohio River and are subject to river intrusion during high river stages and wet weather events. In addition, most of this interceptor is under-capacity and many sections are in poor structural condition.” This project produces a report which may tell what the CSO relief might be, if implemented.

None of the projects addresses sewage backups into homes and businesses.

sewer overflow warning sign
A sewer overflow warning sign.

Work has been done on some of these projects and we are working on figuring out the current status and expenditures.

The letter from USEPA and the county’s submitted new Phase 2A plan. USEPA explicitly did not approve or comment on parts of the submission except explicit approval of the Phase 2B plan deadline and the 5 projects on page 5 of the cfounty proposal.

While the county insisted on their support for stormwater removal from the system, none of the projects are directed at substantial stormwater removal.

Along with allowing an extension to submit the phase 2 plan, (as described above) USEPA, required several “Bridge” projects (proposed by the city and county) be completed by 12/31/2020.

As of Sept 8, 2023, two of these projects that were to be completed by 2020 and 2019 respectively are still incomplete. They are

  • CSO 513 was to be completed by 12/31/2020 and is currently projected to be completed by 12/21/2023. This project is to partially separate storm water from sewage in Reading, reducing overflows from CSO 513.
  • CSOs 83 and 472 were also to reduce sewer overflows and the project was to be completed by 12/31/2019. This project is projected to be completed by 12/15/2023.

Two things are immediately essential. One is fixing the city/county governance issue that has not been effective in fixing the sewers and implementing the consent decree as expeditiously as practical. Secondly, the Phase 2B plan must include all remediation efforts and include getting stormwater out of the MSD system. Stormwater in the combined sewers is driving most overflows and this problem will only worsen with climate change. Green infrastructure remains an effective method to address stormwater issues.

— Marilyn Wall

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