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Published: Tuesday, 7/24/2001

EPA pact on sewers will cost $400 million

BY LISA A. ABRAHAM
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo sewage bills will more than double during the next 15 years under a consent decree settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Mayor Carty Finkbeiner will present today to city council for approval.

The agreement will require the city to make $400 million in upgrades to the city's treatment system to stop the Bay View Waste Water Treatment Plant from spewing untreated sewage into the Maumee River during heavy rains, said Don Moline, director of public utilities.

Besides the improvements, the city is expected to fix leaking storm sewer lines and construct underground retention tanks to hold large amounts of storm water and sewage until they can be treated. The upgrades should stop the discharge of raw or partially treated sewage, which the city estimates amounted to 116 million gallons in 1999.

The decade high occurred in 1990, when the city discharged 2.9 billion gallons into the river.

Mr. Moline said the rate increases would be about 5 to 6 percent each year for the next 15 years.

The first rate increase will take place in January, 2003, and likely raise the sewage bill for a family of four by about $22 per year, said Kerry Bruce, utilities rate coordinator for the city.

Mr. Moline said the city will seek federal grants and no-interest loans to help defray the costs.

The settlement will require the city to pay a $500,000 fine - to be divided between the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA - and to spend $1 million on two other environmental improvement projects: cleanup of the Stickney West Industrial Park in North Toledo; and preservation of the Duck Creek wetland area.

The city has paid $1 million in attorney fees during the past 10 years to Squires, Sanders, & Dempsey, the law firm handling the case for the city, Mr. Bruce said.

“This settlement will allow us to give full protection to our valuable water resources without putting an excessive strain on city finances,” Mayor Finkbeiner said in a statement.

The mayor said early demands by the U.S. EPA for a $650 million investment would have “severely strained” the city. “The price tag associated with this settlement, around $400 million, can be covered through the continuation of sewer rate increases that residents have been paying for the last three years,” he said.

Mayor Finkbeiner said the agreement gives the city 15 years to complete the infrastructure improvements, expected to be the largest public works effort ever undertaken by the city.

He said the problem of sewage overflow is not unique to Toledo. More than 400 communities across the United States, including dozens in Ohio, are operating under similar federal consent decrees.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued the city in 1991, claiming it was violating the federal Clean Water Act. After years of litigation, The Blade reported that the city and the federal government reached a tentative agreement last year. The parties recently put the agreement in writing and the mayor now will present the settlement to council.

Council President Peter Ujvagi, who last year was at odds with the mayor over how the project would be administered, said council has scheduled a closed session today to be briefed on the consent decree. He declined to comment until after that meeting.

“City council has not been part of any of this process. We will take a look at everything and then make the right decisions,” he said.

Mr. Ujvagi and the mayor last year sparred over what engineering consulting firm would be hired to oversee the project, a job for which the city expects to pay about $30 million. Each accused the other of lobbying for a particular firm because of political ties.

Mr. Moline said the city has not determined what firm will be hired.

“Council is going to want to make sure they agree with the choice. And they've already said they're going to hire their own consultant to look at our recommendation and decide whether it's the best recommendation. If they do that, and I assume it's a fair process because, you know, they're people with the same interest we have, I think they'll end up at the same place we do,” Mr. Moline said.

Council is likely to refer the consent decree to committee, and then hold hearings before voting. That process could take weeks or months.

Once council approves the decree, U.S. attorneys will have it published in the federal registry for public comment.

After that, the document will come back before U.S. District Judge James Carr in Toledo, who likely will approve it, Mr. Bruce said.



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