Clogged: Officials keep trying to get a sewer bill aiding taxpayers and the environment unstuck

Infrastructure proposal stresses green over gray
Clogged: Officials keep trying to get a sewer bill aiding taxpayers and the environment unstuck
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-28 07:00:11-05

CINCINNATI -- After eight years on the Cincinnati City Council and the last 16 years as a Hamilton County commissioner, Todd Portune knows something about politics and how important deals can be made over a hot cup of coffee or a cold beer.

In the last few weeks, Portune also got ample evidence about how those deals can fall apart quicker than a coffee can cool off or a cold beer can lose its chill.

Early this month, Portune spent a day in Washington, D.C., in a series of meetings with congressional staffers about the Clean Water Compliance and Ratepayer Affordability Act, which was first introduced in 2013 by U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, the Westwood Republican who has worked with Portune on the legislation.

And if just the title of that legislation causes your eyes to glaze over as if you had been asked to read the fine print on your auto insurance policy, keep in mind that Portune and Chabot and a long list of other supporters from all over the country believe the bill could have a substantial impact on your checking account balance and the country’s environment.

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The legislation was designed to convince the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look at some new alternatives to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The landmark act has required the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, Sanitation District 1 in Northern Kentucky and some 780 other cities, counties and sewer districts throughout the country to invest billions of dollars in aging sewer systems that back up and overflow during intense rains.

Older cities and counties such as Cincinnati, Hamilton County and much of Northern Kentucky have combined sewer systems that handle both raw sewage and stormwater, both of which flow through a single pipe to a sewage treatment plant that may be many miles away. But during a heavy downpour, that single pipe may not have the capacity to handle the volume of water.

As a result, streets flood and basement drains back up, ruining everything that comes in contact with a gag-inducing blend of raw sewage and rainwater.

Besides filling up basements or other low-lying areas, the overflow often eventually winds up in creeks and rivers, which is a key concern of the EPA.

Hamilton County estimated in 2006 that it would cost at least $3.2 billion to meet the EPA standards in what was called the “Wet Weather Improvement Plan,” and Portune believes today’s price tag is closer to $3.5 billion.

The Metropolitan Sewer District included 115 separate projects in phase one of the effort to meet EPA requirements. They will cost $1.145 billion, according to Deb Leonard, communications manager for the district. The first phase is scheduled to be complete by the end of 2018.

Those projects include installing bigger sewer pipes and storage tanks, replacing the combined lines with a system that uses one pipe for stormwater and a second for raw sewage, and treatment plant upgrades, Leonard said.

Portune and Leonard said much of the phase one work is either completed or underway.

But because no other source of funding has been found, ratepayers will have to cover the $3 billion-plus cost of the project.

Portune pointed out that Hamilton County sewer rates are ranked as the sixth or seventh highest in the country and that they are expected to increase about six percent per year for the next 10 years.

When he introduced the bill in mid-2013, Chabot said sewer rates had already increased 130 percent in the previous nine years and would increase by another 5.5 percent in 2013. That higher rate was expected to cost the average customer another $50 per year, Chabot said at the time.

The average homeowner in Hamilton County pays about $625 a year for sewer service, Leonard said. The sewer district did not increase its sewer rates this year or in 2015.

Portune is convinced that the sewer district could save as much as $1 billion of the estimated $2.2-$2.5 billion worth of work that remains if the EPA would agree to work with cities, counties and sewer districts under terms of the Clean Water Compliance legislation that Chabot and co-sponsors have been pushing for since 2013.

If the overall cost of the project shrinks, sewer district rate hikes will be smaller or unnecessary, Portune reasoned.

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At a time when Congress seems to be scrutinizing expenditures carefully, Portune said the proposed legislation didn’t ask for any money.

Instead, the legislation was highly theoretical, calling for a pilot program in which the EPA would work with 15 so-called “showcase” communities all over the country to develop and implement plans that could meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act without spending billions of dollars on the sewer system infrastructure.

In his testimony before the House Water Resources and Environment subcommittee two years ago, Portune pushed for the use of an “adaptive watershed approach using alternative green infrastructure instead of traditional gray infrastructure (concrete pipes, for example)…”

For example, the sewer district proposed “daylighting” streams to an open environment of light, sunshine, air and stream-bank vegetation as a first step in handling and filtering the overflow. This would be an alternative to capturing all of the water in huge tunnels of steel and concrete, the commissioner said.

The proposed legislation also urged the EPA to be more flexible as it examined whether “watershed-based green infrastructure technologies” could be used as an alternative to building new sewers. At this point, the sewer district is being required to clean waterways that are in its watershed -- the natural drainage area -- even though these streams and rivers don’t originate in Hamilton County, Portune said.

As is often the case in Washington, things got complicated during the fall, when much of America and many members of Congress were deeply immersed in their own re-election campaigns and a bitterly contested presidential race.

Before the election, the Senate passed the Water Resources Development Act, which incorporated all of the key provisions of the Clean Water Compliance and Ratepayer Affordability Act, then sent that bill to the House, Portune said.

As written, provisions of the compliance act reach far beyond Hamilton County and Northern Kentucky.

Portune is generally credited with putting together the “Perfect Storm Communities Coalition,” which was made up of representatives of cities, counties and sewer districts that faced similar expensive problems meeting EPA standards because of aging sewer systems. Cleveland, Columbus, Toledo, Detroit, Indianapolis and Charleston, West Virginia, are some of the big cities that have been involved in the coalition.

The 780 communities affected by the EPA regulations would have faced sewer infrastructure bills of about $600 billion, according to 2006 estimates, Portune said.

When he testified before a House subcommittee about the legislation, Portune explained that the coalition was “made up of communities dealing with the 'perfect storm' of high unemployment, high home foreclosure rates, stagnant economic growth, and an exodus of business and industry, while being required to meet expensive” EPA regulations on overflows.

Most recently, Portune went to Washington on Dec.1, a Thursday, when he had lined up six meetings -- one with Chabot and five separate meetings with congressional staffers who were familiar with the legislation and its prospects for passage.

“We were confident that it was going to be approved,” Portune recalled after the meetings had concluded. “We were told that it was in the hands of leadership -- (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and (House speaker) Paul Ryan.”

Typically speaking, when legislation is “in the hands of leadership,” that means it’s going to pass without much debate, Portune said.

But that was not the case.

Fast forward to Monday, Dec. 5, when a vote on the legislation was expected.

“Monday afternoon I got a call from Chabot’s office saying Ryan’s office had just called them and they had stripped it out of the bill ... so it was Ryan that did it and why, I never got a good answer (on that),” Portune said. “All I know is that something happened over the weekend (of Dec. 3-4) that I’m not privy to.”

Portune said he was unsuccessful in his effort to get an explanation about why the provisions he had supported were excluded from the legislation.

Ryan’s office did not respond to several requests for comment about the legislation that Portune and Chabot had supported. Chabot’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday of that week, the House passed another clean-water bill that included some $170 million in federal aid to Flint, Michigan, where thousands of people have been exposed to drinking water contaminated with lead in a scandal that has drawn national attention for much of the year.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat who had co-sponsored the Chabot legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who lives in Terrace Park, shared Portman’s disappointment that the legislation failed.

“Too many communities can’t afford to replace old sewer systems, and Cincinnati is a perfect example of why my bill is needed. Updating these systems protects water quality while shielding ratepayers from outrageous water bills, and I’ll keep working until this is law,” Brown said in a statement from his office.

“Like many wastewater utilities across the nation, MSD (Metropolitan Sanitation District) is faced with an unfunded consent decree (federal mandate) to keep raw sewage mixed with stormwater out of our waterways when it rains,” MSD director Gerald Checco said in an email.

“The result is a massive multi-billion-dollar public works program -- known as Project Groundwork -- that is funded primarily by MSD customers through their sewer bills. MSD is very aware this has become a major financial burden to many of our customers and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of the Hamilton County commissioners to lobby Congress for financial relief,” Checco said.

“It is extremely unfortunate the bill did not pass. We hope the commissioners’ efforts in 2017 are successful.”

“It was a bitter pill to swallow. I won’t pull any punches. It was very disappointing and very frustrating. You can see how long we have been working on this,” said Portune, referring to documents that show that he has been working on the sewer issue for about nine years.

“We’ve been fighting this fight at a high level with a somewhat sophisticated strategy for almost a decade,” said Portune, who said he intends to continue working on the legislation next year.

“It’s so important. These costs are so challenging for everyone to bear and we’ve been going to bat for the ratepayers for a very long time. … We thought we had a solution that we thought was going to work and then the rug was pulled out from under us at the 11th hour for reasons that we don’t understand.

“The signals are all pointing to it (the decision) just being a part of the politics of Washington, which is why people are so angry in this country today,” Portune said.