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Environment


Akron looks for a cheaper, maybe greener, sewer plan but it may take longer
A month before federal Judge John Adams approves the $1.4 billion long-term control plan, the city asks the EPA if it can try something different
by WKSU's MARK URYCKI


Senior Reporter
Mark Urycki
 
Akron has 32 combined sewer overflow points that must be capped or diverted into basins that will eventually lead to treatment.
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In The Region:
Akron residents will start seeing much higher sewer bills next month. City Council approved a rate hike that will increase bills by 69 percent over the next two years for an average household.

The city needs the extra revenue to pay off the high cost of re-engineering its sewer system.  Like Cleveland, Akron is under federal orders to stop dumping sewage in rivers and lakes.  But both cities are now exploring a new option from the U.S. EPA that may allow them to go a cheaper route.
LISTEN: The questions surrounding Akron's sewer plan

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Like most older American cities, Akron and Cleveland have sewer lines that connect with storm-water lines. After heavy rain storms, those combined sewers overflow and some untreated sewage spills into the Cuyahoga River or Lake Erie.  The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which covers Cuyahoga County, and the city of Akron are both under EPA orders to build huge catch basins and mile-long tunnels to capture storm water until it can be treated.  

Elaine Marsh of the environmental group Friends of the Crooked River says she understands that places a burden on ratepayers.

Doing the right thing
“Nobody, especially Friends of the Crooked River, wants a plan that is unduly burdensome on the city of Akron.  However, it is a burden to protect our environment.  And we do want to see the city accept that burden and to do the right thing.”

 Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic says the city did accept the burden a dozen years ago. 

“Keep in mind I had an agreement, a less-expensive agreement, negotiated and finalized with the Ohio EPA, which was the designated agent in 2002, and the federal government came in and said, ‘No.‘”

That set off a dozen years of legal squabbles with multiple agreements reached and then overturned. The price grew from $300 million to $800 million and then last year to $1.4 billion.
Three weeks ago, U.S. District Judge John Adams finally approved a plan that requires Akron to completely eliminate untreated overflows.  It’s considered the strictest in the nation.  

Integrated options
But while the city was in court, Congress was holding hearings about the high cost of the EPA's requirements for older cities.  And the EPA came up with new guidelines that took affordability into consideration. So, one month before the judge signed off on Akron’s latest agreement with the EPA, the city went back to the EPA asking to adopt one of these new, so-called “integrated plans.”

Integrated plans not only give cities more time to fix their sewers, they also allow the use of green technology such as buffer zones and swales that can absorb storm-water. Mayor Plusquellic says a clean river is important

“But let’s address it in a reasonable manner using as much green technology as we can to help the environment in other ways. And let’s do it in an affordable way so we don’t harm the least among us – those who are on fixed income or having difficulty paying their bills right now because they don’t make a lot of money.”

Greener and cheaper, and longer
Green methods get a lot of media attention, but saving money is what really interests cash-strapped cities. Akron Deputy Service Director Phil Montgomery.

“Green infrastructure is great, but it’s not necessarily always cheap. And so while we want to look at all the areas that we can put green projects in place to do some of this cleanup naturally, it may not be the cheaper model.”

Even environmentalist Elaine Marsh, an adviser to the city on the cleanup plan,  says green projects may sound good but not if they stretch out the project timeline.

“It’s a little difficult to go back and retool a gray infrastructure plan to add green infrastructure. I think the goals of an integrated plan are good, but not if they delay the correction of the existing problem.”

Delay may be exactly what an integrated plan would do.  Deputy Service Director Montgomery assumes Akron would still have to achieve the goal of zero untreated sewer overflows – but he hopes the city would be allowed to re-prioritize its sewer projects and go past its current 2027 deadline."

“I would imagine zero is the starting point since that’s where we are today. And as we re-shuffle some things, maybe we don’t reach zero until 2025 or 2035 or 2045 depending on what the realignment of the projects looks like.”

But it’s unclear whether the U.S. EPA will even allow Akron to start over with an integrated plan now that the judge has signed off on the original plan.

Cleveland is in the same boat. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is two years into working on its $3 billion sewer project, conceived under the old EPA guidelines. But officials there just sent a letter to the EPA to see if it can change  to an integrated plan, too.


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