Appeal nets $5M for sewer replacement

Published 11:02 am Friday, June 12, 2009

IRONTON — The city’s persistence for a slice of federal stimulus money won out over the Environmental Protection Agency’s resistance to give it up.

Following an April 23 setback that saw Ironton shut out to receive a portion of $278 million the Ohio EPA allocated for water and sewer rehabilitation, the state agency reconsidered this week and earmarked $5 million towards the city’s heavily-dated sanitary and overflow sewer separation facilities.

The reversal followed extensive lobbying the past six weeks by Mayor Rich Blankenship to EPA brass. In both written and verbal testimony to officials in Columbus, Blankenship pointed out inconsistencies in the sliding scale, scoring system EPA officials used to grade other sewer separation facilities around the state.

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One of Blankenship’s arguments was a finding that funds were being allocated to sewer networks the EPA deemed in better condition than Ironton’s.

Adding insult was the city had just gotten through paying the EPA nearly $100,000 the week before in fines for non-compliance in rehabilitating its sewer overflow system.

While still unofficial, news of the successful appeal spread throughout city hall fast.

Blankenship made his announcement official at Thursday’s city council meeting.

“We still need to act with caution as the decision is still unofficial, but I am very excited for the city,” Blankenship said when asked before the meeting. “It is a step in the right direction for infrastructural improvements.”

Council agreed.

“If it wasn’t for you we wouldn’t have got it done,” Councilman Leo Johnson said while praising Blankenship for his continued “face time” in Columbus on the appeal.

The decision by the EPA to fund a portion of the estimated $23 million sanitary and overflow sewer separation project comes following the agency’s decision to revise its original list of 324 “priority” projects statewide that were awarded stimulus money for drinking and water pollution control through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The agency said the revised list came about as some projects first selected could not meet the mandated completion schedule or the requirements of the EPA.

“I must emphasize that the inclusion of a project on the revised list does not guarantee that a particular project will be funded as the project lists will be subject to change until all funding has been awarded,” EPA Director Chris Korleski said.

Along with being awarded the $5 million, the city now has the opportunity to finance the remaining $18 million though the Ohio EPA’s revolving loan program.

The program allows communities a longer payback time at lower interest rates for programs like the sewer separation project.

Engineer consultant Doug Cade of E.L. Robinson said the city has not been notified on the terms or the structure of the loan.

Following years of neglect and ball-dropping, the EPA levied a consent order against Ironton in January, effectively placing the city on the strictest of deadlines when it comes to replacing its combined sewer overflow system.

Under a 17-year agreement with both federal and state EPA authorities, Ironton must have its entire city-wide combined sewer overflow system financed and replaced.

The agreement is peppered with an extensive list of both short and long-term deadlines Ironton is required to hit.

Should the city fail to meet any of the timetables ordered by the EPA, they could face fines ranging from $200 to $600 per day based on the amount of days overdue.

More than 750 communities nationwide have combined sewer systems with 108 of those in the state of Ohio. Twenty nine of these are under EPA consent orders.

The EPA states that combined sewer overflow discharges during heavy storms can cause serious water pollution problems in these communities and nearby waterways like the Ohio River.

In the mid-1990’s the EPA issued an order requiring municipalities to make improvements to reduce or eliminate combined sewer overflow pollution problems.

Six years later, Congress amended the Clean Water Act that mandated municipalities comply with the EPA policy.