Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Toledo says it legally can dilute sewage

Toledo officials don't expect the city to be directly affected by next month's anticipated showdown over the Bush administration's controversial plan to let municipalities dilute their sewage effluent.

That's because Toledo claims to have had authorization to do it for three years, said Bob Williams, Toledo Waterways Initiative director.

Mr. Williams cited provisions of a consent decree the city signed in 2002 to end more than a decade of contentious litigation over raw sewage overflows. He said the agreement made with state and federal regulators allows for some mixing of partially treated and fully treated effluent after heavy rains, when the sewage network can be overwhelmed by water.

While activists nationwide decry dilution - called sewage blending by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Toledo officials argue it will let them get the most out of the city's $450 million sewage system upgrade.

It also will allow the city to remain in compliance with the Clean Water Act, a watershed piece of environmental legislation signed by former President Richard Nixon. Among other things, the act required municipalities to embrace some of the latest technology and make billions of dollars of sewage treatment improvements.

But in cities like Toledo, where sewer lines are a century old, it has been difficult - and expensive - to meet federal clean water guidelines.

Back when those sewer lines were installed, the prevailing wisdom was to have the same sewage pipes used to send both household sewage and street runoff - rainwater and snowmelt - to the main treatment plant off Summit Street in Point Place.

That works fine under normal conditions. But the lines are full after heavy rains, and because the city's treatment plant cannot treat all of the water, hundreds of gallons of raw sewage flow into the Maumee River, Ottawa River, and Swan Creek.

Toledo will eliminate all nine overflows designed specifically for household waste as part of its 15-year, $450 million sewage improvement project that voters authorized in 2002. An undetermined number of the 29 remaining combined overflows will be eliminated too, Mr. Williams said.

The gist of the project is that raw sewage overflows will largely be a thing of the past. The city will continue to fully treat up to 200 million gallons of waste at a time, something it has done virtually since the 1950s. The normal dry weather flow is only about a quarter of that.

And the city also will build a so-called "wet weather facility" that will partially treat another 200 million gallons, as well as an equalization tank anywhere from 25 million to 60 million gallons in size. That will more than double the capacity, so that basement flooding also becomes a thing of the past.

But the bottom line is this: Even after spending $450 million, Toledo won't always be giving its sewage full treatment. Doing so would push the project well into the billions of dollars, officials said.

Tom Lyon, deputy program director for Black & Veatch, a firm hired to engineer Toledo's improvements, anticipates some blending at Toledo's wastewater treatment plant about three to five days a year. Those projections are based on figures culled over the past decade.

But when there is blending on the local level, the stuff that's discharged from the sewage treatment plant into the Maumee River won't be nearly as murky as the public might have been led to believe, Mr. Williams said.

Toledo typically removes 98 percent of all contaminants in its full treatment process. That's about 6 to 8 percent more than what's required by its federal EPA permit, Mr. Lyon said.

The technology eyed for partial treatment here would remove about 75 percent of all contaminants. Therefore, whatever volume winds up getting treated at an efficiency rate of only 75 percent will be diluted by up to 200 million gallons that have been treated at an efficiency rate of 98 percent, he said.

Mr. Lyon conceded that the big 6 to 8 percent cushion the city has for compliance under full treatment will recede when partially-treated sewage is mixed in. The city may only "barely eke by" at times when the blended product is discharged into the Maumee. But he and Mr. Williams said the city will revert to blending only when necessary and that the sewage plant's discharge will remain within permitted levels at all times.

Paul Novak, Ohio EPA surface water permits and compliance manager, said the state agency will go along with blending only if municipalities agree to use it as a last resort.

"I think it's too early to say if Toledo really needs blending and if that's the only feasible option," he said. "We want communities to [fully] treat as much as possible and to use blending only when there are no other alternatives."

Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes advocate for the region's Public Interest Research Groups, said he isn't familiar with the specifics of Toledo's project but voiced anxiety about blending in general.

"When blending becomes routine, it takes away the incentive for full treatment," he said.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.

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