Akron to Pay $ Billion to Clean-Up Sewage

By Bob Downing
Beacon Journal staff writer

Akron has developed a $248 million plan to reduce its No. 1 environmental problem, but the city says it cannot afford the remedy.

Getting rid of combined sewers that dump untreated human waste and storm water into the Cuyahoga River, the Little Cuyahoga River and the Ohio & Erie Canal would quadruple sewer bills for 328,000 sewer customers in Akron and surrounding suburbs, so that's not an option, officials said.

Trying to have sewer customers pay for the improvements would be ``catastrophic . . . and totally devastating,'' said Service Director Joseph Kidder. ``It's just an impossibility.''

The city intends to pursue federal and state grants, but it cannot reduce the volume of polluted runoff without outside financial help, he said.

Kidder said city officials are hopeful that federal funding might be available. A few cities have gotten help from Congress but there is no federal program to fund such sewer work.

If Akron fails to deal with the combined sewers, that could trigger future legal action against the city by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The city's announcement that it is unable -- at least for now -- to deal with combined sewers came under immediate fire from environmentalists.

``It's just reprehensible; it's an outrage,'' said Elaine Marsh, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Crooked River, a grass-roots group devoted to the Cuyahoga River. ``It's unconscionable and unbelievable. . . . What Akron is doing is aggravating, sad and very disappointing.''

Akron has known for years that it needed to clean up its combined sewers and it is avoiding its responsibility, she said.

The city makes money selling drinking water from the Cuyahoga but claims it is unable to correct a major environmental problem that it created, said Marsh, who served on a city advisory committee.

Akron ``must address the combined sewer overflow problem now,'' the Akron Garden Club said in a statement. ``It will have to be solved at some point in the very near future.''

The failure to correct the problem or delays will hurt ongoing efforts to develop the Ohio & Erie Canal National Heritage Corridor, a 110-mile corridor from Cleveland through Akron and Canton to New Philadelphia, it said.

The city intends to meet with the EPA to begin negotiations on prioritizing the sewer improvements and discussing the city's plan and its financial dilemma.

The city's plan calls for construction of two monster tunnels to store runoff, building basins where storm water can be stored or treated, improving Akron's sewage plant and installing separate storm and sanitary sewers.

That plan was deemed to be superior to four other alternatives studied by the city and four consulting firms that were paid $3 million.

The city wants to spread the sewer work out over 35 years, not the 15 years suggested in federal and state guidelines. It wants to closely monitor the waterways to gauge improvements and reduce what work might be required. It also wants state water-quality standards for the streams loosened.

``We want to comply, but we want to do it this way,'' Kidder said.

About one-third of the city of Akron has combined sewers. Those 188 miles of combined sewers dump 2.4 billion gallons of polluted runoff a year into the Cuyahoga River from 38 outlets. That's enough to fill tanker cars to create a train more than 800 miles long.

The overflow varies from storm to storm. Some of the sewers overflow every time it rains, others only when there are heavy rains.

The greatest number of combined sewers are on the Little Cuyahoga River. Two of the worst are on the canal.

When the wastewater overflows, oxygen levels in the river decrease, affecting aquatic life. Nutrients add to blooms of algae. Bacteria levels rise, making the water off-limits for boating and swimming.

Akron's overflow problem is widespread: 21 percent of the area it covers has combined sewers.

The sewer system serves Akron and 13 other communities. The typical residential customer pays $26.41 a month.

Problem not unique

Such combined sewer problems are not unique to Akron. They affect such urban areas as Cleveland and small towns as Marshallville.

There are 120 Ohio cities, including 15 in Northeast Ohio, with combined sewer problems. No others are in the Akron area. Most combined sewer systems were built before 1920.

Nationally, the problem afflicts 1,100 sewer systems. The price tag to eliminate the problem is $100 billion.

Last week Akron filed a 19-page report outlining its final plan with the EPA. The report had to be filed to meet a state order. The city earlier had filed two massive documents on combined sewer overflows.

The EPA will review the city's plan and discuss the needed work in an effort to develop a cooperative approach and to avoid a legal confrontation, said agency spokesman Keith Riley.

Akron is under no EPA orders to do the sewer work, but is under a directive under the federal Clean Water Act that progress be made in cutting such pollution.

Massive tunnels

The city's plan calls for two massive tunnels in which runoff from combined sewers would be stored:

One would be 20 feet in diameter and 5,000 feet in length. It would be buried 100 feet below ground. It would be along the Innerbelt south of West Exchange Street and would be capable of storing 238 million gallons. The price tag: $93 million.

A second, smaller tunnel would run along the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls. It would be 10 feet in diameter and 5,000 feet long. It would be between North Main Street and Cuyahoga Street. It could hold up to 24 million gallons. The price: $28 million.

Both tunnels would store the runoff until after the rains end, when it would be shipped to the city's sewage plant.

It would likely be at least 15 years before the first tunnel -- the larger one -- would be built, said Akron spokesmen Patrick Gsellman and Jeffrey Bronowski.

The plan also calls for installation of 11 underground concrete storage basins in Akron to store or chemically treat the runoff. The runoff would then be pumped to the sewage plant.

The largest basin would be bigger than a football field: 500 feet long and 300 feet wide. It would be capable of holding 30 million gallons. It would cost $12 million.

Such basins might be installed from 10 to 30 feet below the surface of parks and parking lots, Gsellman said.

The plan calls for $60 million in improvements to the city's sewage plant. That includes construction of added storage space to hold 40 million gallons of runoff.

The plan also includes experimental aeration of the Cuyahoga River north of North Portage Path and for developing a greenway along the Little Cuyahoga River in East Akron. Such steps would help the city improve water quality on the Cuyahoga.

Money set aside

The city has earmarked $1.2 million in next year's budget for combined sewer work. It also is spending $290,000 from a state grant to control litter and odors on the canal in downtown Akron. That will require installation of an aerosol system at three sewer outlets.

The city's plan would benefit the Cuyahoga River and its water quality, Gsellman said.

Those projects would help reduce but not eliminate the overflow problem, he said.

The sewer improvements would reduce the number and duration of combined sewers overflowing into waterways, he said.

Computer modeling indicates that the number of overflows should drop 90 percent in a typical year -- from 1,005 to 105, Gsellman said.

The length of such overflows would also drop 81 percent: from 3,257 hours to 629 hours, he said.

The volume of overflows going into Akron's waterways should be reduced by 41 percent: from 2.4 billion gallons to 1.4 billion gallons a year, and the level of pollutants would drop 49 percent, he said.