Stimulus money for some, not all

Published 11:03 am Friday, April 24, 2009

IRONTON — The soon to be completed Union-Rome Waste Water Treatment Plant and an overlooked water well in Coal Grove received shots in the arm yesterday as they were selected by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to receive nearly $5.4 million in federal stimulus money earmarked to upgrade Ohio’s water and sewer systems.

But not named as one of the 324 “priority” projects statewide by the Ohio EPA was a pair of requests by the city of Ironton for nearly $40 million to rehabilitate its sanitary and overflow sewer separation facilities.

It’s the same sewer system state and federal EPA officials cited and levied nearly $100,000 in fines against in recent months.

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The decision to bypass Ironton and allocate stimulus monies to cities with less inferior sewer systems shocked many, including Mayor Rich Blankenship.

“I’m very confused with how certain cities were selected and Ironton wasn’t,” a bitterly disappointed Blankenship told Ironton City Council Thursday night.

The Ohio EPA received 3,300 applications from cities, counties and villages seeking to get a portion of the $278 million allocated for water and sewer rehabilitation.

Projects were rated using criteria that included how quickly construction could be completed and the project’s ability to improve water quality and public health.

Seventy-four of Ohio’s 88 counties received stimulus funding according to the Ohio EPA.

The Union-Rome and Coal Grove projects were the only two selected in Lawrence County to receive full or partial funding as part of President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package that he signed this year to help jump-start the economy.

A 2007 report by the U.S. EPA estimated Ohio’s drinking water utilities need $12 billion in infrastructure investments during the next 20 years for pipe, treatment plants and storage tanks.

The $5 million allocation for the Chesapeake-based water treatment plant will be put towards the loan Lawrence County Commissioners obtained from the state’s Water Pollution Control Loan Fund in 2004 to pay for the new facility.

Administered by the Ohio EPA, the fund provides financial assistance to both private and public entities regarding the state’s water resources. Assistance is available for wastewater treatment works projects, new or replacement sewers overflow correction and storm sewers.

A percentage of sewer rates and other federal monies are also being used to pay for the plant scheduled to be completed and operational by July.

The project, which began in October of 2007, will use a state-of-the art Japanese-based filtration system to treat drinking water and replace the current plant that treats about 1 million gallons of sewage a day.

The new plant is expected to double that capacity at a cost $25.2 million.

In 2002, the Ohio EPA declared that the current plant did not meet the National Pollution Discharge Environmental System standards of removing ammonia from its sewage discharge.

Ammonia is harmful to some species — including flathead minnows and water fleas — that live in local waterways.

When complete, the Union-Rome Waste Water Treatment Plant will serve the villages of Chesapeake and Proctorville along with Rome and Union Townships.

Calls made by The Tribune to District Administrator Tim Porter seeking comment were not returned.

Also receiving a share was the Village of Coal Grove with $399,200 in monies needed to replace one of the village’s contaminated drinking wells.

Turned down numerous times by the state for funding, Coal Grove had been looking to replace the 250 gallon-per-minute well for years since it was discovered to contain toxic chemicals.

Contaminated years ago from the now-defunct Ford Brothers Motor Freight Tank Cleaning whose operation was located adjacent to the well, the village was mandated by the EPA to pump all drinking water from the well into the Ohio River as to not contaminate the remaining well field.

But despite not being named, Ironton was singled out yesterday as one of 86 Ohio communities with serious sewage overflow problems.

As a result, they were named in bipartisan legislation drafted by both Senators George Voinovich and Sherrod Brown to fund water infrastructure within the state.

If passed, The Clean Water Affordability Act of 2009 would authorize $1.8 billion over five years for a grant program to help financially distressed communities like Ironton update their aging waste water and storm sewer infrastructure.

The program would provide a 75-25 cost share for municipalities to use for planning, design, and construction of treatment works to control combined and sanitary sewer overflows.

For Blankenship though, rehabilitating Ironton’s sewer and storm water systems is still one his main priorities as mayor.

“I’m going to continue to fight for Ironton’s share of the money. I’m not going to give up.”

Also Thursday, the Ohio EPA set aside $5 million for counties to help individual homeowners fix or replace failing septic systems, which can discharge untreated sewage into creeks or low-lying yards.

Failing septic systems can damage the environment wile exposing people who come in contact with it to bacteria and disease.