Bill requires public notice for sewage discharges

5/24/2007
BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - Municipal sewage systems like Toledo's would be forced to notify the state and the public whenever they discharge raw sewage into Ohio waters under a bill introduced yesterday in the Ohio House.

The move coincided with the release of an environmental report indicating that nearly 11 billion gallons of sewage overflowed directly into Lake Erie or the rivers and streams that feed into it in 2005, much of it from municipal sewage systems overwhelmed by heavy rains.

Toledo alone was responsible for 1.17 billion gallons of that total, exceeded only by Cleveland at 4.92 billion gallons and Fremont at 1.53 billion gallons, according to the Environment Ohio Research and Policy Center, formerly the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.

The report looked at 38 community-run systems that dump sewage into waters in the Lake Erie watershed.

Such cities would be required to post signs at the site of the contamination under the proposed legislation.

"People are unaware that in 2007, untreated sewage is overflowing into our waterways," said Amy Gomberg of Environment Ohio. "That's hard for people to swallow. No pun intended."

Toledo signed a consent agreement with the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies several years ago after more than 11 years of litigation. The city has agreed to expand its treatment plant by 2016 to eliminate weather-related discharges into Swan Creek and the Maumee and Ottawa rivers.

The update to the city's aging systems is expected to cost $450 million, financed by increased sanitary sewer rates and perhaps government assistance.

No one with the Toledo Waterways Initiative could be reached for comment yesterday, but the initiative's Web site showed that there have been 54 such overflows at various locations on five days so far in May.

Ms. Gomberg said the problem with such agreements is that they are long-term plans calling for action years in the future. In the meantime, people are swimming, fishing, and drinking from a lake repeatedly contaminated with raw sewage containing viruses and bacteria that can cause serious gastrointestinal illnesses and other health problems.

"The health threat is undisputed," said Tim Buckley of Ohio State University's Environmental Health Sciences Department. "The good news is that we know what the problem is and how to fix it."

The report urges municipalities with combined systems handling sewage and rainwater runoff to separate those systems, reducing the chances that heavy rainfall will overwhelm the system and carry raw sewage directly into waterways instead of being processed first at wastewater treatment plants.

The bill introduced yesterday by Rep. Scott Oelslager (R., Canton) counts 17 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. A similar bill was introduced last year, but ran out of time before the session ended, he said.

The bill requires the government organization responsible for a sewage discharge into Ohio waters to notify the Ohio EPA within 24 hours of the incident, publish that information in local media, and post a sign at the contamination site, even if that site is a river or stream rather than Lake Erie itself.

The Ohio EPA would be required to issue monthly reports and analyze whether such overflows are rare or regular occurrences.

Current law does not require Ohio EPA to monitor sewage discharges or to notify the public when they occur. Warnings are usually initiated when water testing shows bacteria levels have reached levels deemed unsafe, something that happened 70 percent of the time between 2000 and 2005 at Camp Perry in Port Clinton, according to Environment Ohio.

Ohio EPA spokesman Linda Oros said the agency has not had a chance to review Mr. Oelslager's bill and take a position on it.

"The difficult part with these discharges is that they are intermittent," she said. "They only happen when there's a rain event, which makes it difficult to get a picture. Monitoring those is very different from monitoring under a regular permit."

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.