Nine days before an algae-induced water crisis sent metro Toledo’s 500,000 residents scurrying for bottled water, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency was hounding city officials to finish the latest version of their contingency plan for a water crisis.
According to agency notes of a July 24 conference call that state regulators had with Toledo officials, the Ohio EPA had requested on June 9 “that the city’s contingency plan be revised to address a major plant or source failure such that drinking water could not be produced for an extended period of time.”
That statement was in a now-widely circulated June 9 letter from Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler to Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins, part of an extensive set of documents and emails The Blade obtained under a public records request.
Subsequent to the June 9 letter, the Ohio EPA made two attempts to reach Leslie Kovacik, an attorney in Toledo’s water department, about the delay.
“The city attorney [Ms. Kovacik] has not returned Ohio EPA’s calls,” the agency’s notes of the July 24 conference call said. “Ohio EPA is again requesting submittal of the contingency plan.”
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The paper trail shows problems with Toledo’s water-distribution system go well beyond aging equipment at the city’s 73-year-old Collins Park Water Treatment Plant.
They include other matters the Ohio EPA describes as “significant deficiencies.”
Those include what was first a lack of a contingency plan and, then, a plan the Ohio EPA considered inadequate. The agency is still asking for revisions.
Contingency plans are documents crucial for coordinating emergency response. They serve as blueprints for city officials to use in the event of an emergency.
Although it’s clear from the paper trail that problems with the contingency plan and other “significant deficiencies” began long before Mayor Collins took office in January, it’s also clear there remains a heavy backlog of issues the Ohio EPA wants Toledo to address.
Mr. Butler said in a telephone interview with the The Blade on Friday that the number of lingering issues remains a concern at many municipal water treatment plants across Ohio.
But Toledo’s shortcomings with emergency planning are especially troubling, he said, because of how the city has been prone to algae outbreaks nearly annually since 1995, and because the city has an antiquated water-treatment system with a backlog of needed repairs.
“Intuitively, it’s a prudent move to have a good contingency plan,” Mr. Butler said. “When you’re talking about drinking water, it’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity of life. You need to be ready and able and not caught flat-footed.”
Among other things, the city needs to develop emergency interconnections and a backup source of water, he said.
“It’s a vulnerable system, given its age,” Mr. Butler said.
Former Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones, now a Columbus lawyer specializing in environmental issues, agreed with the general concept of better planning.
“Any municipality that relies on the lake has to have a plan in place for its water,” Mr. Jones said. “It’s just essential. We went through this with Y2K [Jan. 1, 2000], which turned out to be a nonevent. But we have to plan for the ‘What ifs?’ for what contingency would be in place. It’s just a matter of simple management; you have to have a viable contingency plan in place.”
Toledo still has not revised its contingency plan to the Ohio EPA’s liking.
Ms. Kovacik said she did not receive the Ohio EPA’s messages. She works in the Ohio Building, a building separate from the One Government Center offices of other attorneys in the city’s law department. If messages were left, they weren’t passed along, she said.
“There was a miscommunication,” Ms. Kovacik, daughter of former Toledo public utilities director Tom Kovacik, said. “It wasn't a matter of me not getting back to them.”
She said her role was not to review the plan’s content, but to instruct city officials that the law department believes the plan is exempt from public disclosure under a law passed in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That law, she said, protects certain details about a municipality's infrastructure to keep them away from terrorists.
“It’s not that the city did not want to provide the information,” Ms. Kovacik said. “We wanted to know it would be marked, so it would not be going out to the public if there was a public records request for it.”
She said she has advised the city to finish producing the contingency plan, but to get a clear understanding from the Ohio EPA that it will not be released.
“I can’t tell you the status of this. I’m assuming they will eventually comply,” Ms. Kovacik said.
During a news conference Friday, Ed Moore, Toledo public services director, said the city vows to finish revisions of its contingency plan, and have a better plan in place for future emergencies.
“We understand we have some shortcomings with emergency response. We will do better,” he said.
Mr. Moore said the contingency plan has not been finished because of those disclosure concerns.
“We do have a fundamental disagreement with the Ohio EPA,” he said. “They want detailed design information that hasn’t been developed.”
Mr. Collins stepped away from the podium and allowed administration officials to answer many of the questions reporters raised at Friday's news conference.
He stood up for employees of the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant and lauded the city’s overall response to last weekend’s crisis, but said little in response to Mr. Butler’s June 9 letter in which the agency director claimed the aging water plant was “vulnerable to potential failures that could severely impact the city’s ability to provide adequate quantities of safe water to its citizens.”
Mr. Collins said city officials will be evaluating their own performances during last weekend’s crisis as they decide how to tweak the contingency plan for any such future events.
They also will step back and rethink where they go from here, including whether the city should consider building a new facility from scratch.
The city is putting $300 million of improvements into the structure, the largest project being a new unit capable of producing another 40 million gallons of water a day. The current capacity is 120 million gallons a day.
The plan is to shut down the oldest unit once the new one is operating in 2019 and overhaul it, then bring it back up and overhaul the next unit.
Mr. Moore told city councilmen on Monday that an entirely new facility from scratch would be “north of $1 billion.”
Mr. Collins ended the news conference by drawing an analogy to some of the lessons he learned in law enforcement.
He was a police officer before becoming a city councilman and, subsequently, mayor.
“Whether it’s a barricaded person or a search warrant that went awry, you learn from every single incident,” Mr. Collins said. “I realize you would like to see a new water plant on Monday. That is not going to happen.”