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Federal judge orders county, city to end bickering over Metropolitan Sewer District

Ruling approves county plan for complying with EPA
Posted at 11:45 AM, May 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-13 20:13:03-04

CINCINNATI — A federal judge gave both the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County a slap on the wrist this week and threatened harsh measures while ruling in their long power struggle over the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati.

Judge Michael R. Barrett ruled that the county’s plan for bringing MSD in compliance with the Clean Water Act – not the city-MSD plan - should be followed if it gets approval from regulators.

Barrett’s nine-page ruling also said both sides need to stop feuding because their constant bickering “is a waste of precious time and rate-payers’ money.”

The city manages the sewer system, but the county owns it. That has led to a power struggle, stalling projects.

While the two sides fiddled in recent years, the EPA threatened to raise sewer rates 70%.

RELATED: With county and city bickering, who's going to save us from EPA plan to raise sewer rates 70%?

The city and county ended up in court after both submitted a Phase 2A Plan to the EPA under a federal consent decree. The plan proposed the next round of MSD projects.

Because the EPA got two competing plans, the agency determined MSD was not in compliance and came out with its own cost-prohibitive Phase 2A Plan for the district.

Barrett’s ruling said MSD should follow the county’s proposed plan because the county is in charge, and he blamed both sides equally for their dysfunction.

“One party is not to blame more than the other,” Barrett said.

Barrett said if regulators do not approve the county’s plan, the city and county will have to either revise the proposed Phase 2A plan within 60 days or commence “dispute resolution again.”

The judge denied the county’s motion to “solve dysfunction at MSD,” according to court documents.

“At this time, the Court is not prepared to turn disputes which are not directly related to the objectives of the Consent Decree into violations of the Consent Decree,” the document says. “Therefore, the Court will not address the County’s claim that the City has been hiding information or failing to follow guidance from the County.”

Both sides did appear to extend an olive branch this week.

“This is good news in that it should allow us to move forward together,” County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said in a statement.

City Councilmember Greg Landsman said he has recently had “productive conversations” with Commissioner Denise Driehaus about replacing a broken sewer pipe fouling the Muddy Creek.

But that’s just one project.

The judge said if the city and county don’t start working together on everything the court will implement what Barrett called “Draconian” measures.

“We are pleased that the Judge recognized that the MSD employees have the expertise and professional know-how for planning and implementing our Consent Decree projects and that the County should place strong reliance on the advice it is given from MSD professionals," City Manager Patrick Duhaney wrote in a statement.

"We agree with the Judge’s opinion that it is time to stop rehashing what has happened in the past and focus on the next phase of our Consent Decree to continue the tremendous progress already made in improving water quality in our region. “

SEE the Phase 2A plans from the county and the MSD as well as the MSD’s response to the EPA.