Illegal sewer discharges could cost Columbia wastewater customers

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 13, 2013 


— Utility bills are likely to rise for Columbia residents in coming years as the city rebuilds its leaky sewer system, a massive network of aging pipes, manholes and pump stations that federal officials say too often fail and spill sewage into area rivers.

During a news conference along the Congaree River, City Manager Teresa Wilson said resolving the issue won’t be easy or cheap.

Realistically speaking, with the amount of work that would have to be done, there will be some increases,” Wilson said when asked if utility rates would go up. “What we want to do is minimize those increases as best we can so it is realistic for our citizens in Columbia in a way that they can grow into the increases.”

Wilson made her remarks as city officials discussed how they will fix problems outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in an enforcement order, which surfaced this week.

The EPA is fining Columbia nearly $500,000 for sewage spills and requiring Columbia to spend another $1 million to ease flooding and cleanup creeks that feed into the Broad and Congaree Rivers, according to a draft copy of the federal order posted on the city’s website.

Columbia officials say they have budgeted for those costs, but those amounts are small when compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that could be spent over the next decade to replace pipes, improve pump stations, clean out sewer lines and keep the state’s largest sewer plant up to standard.

The city’s sewer system, which contains some pipes that are a century old, deteriorated through the years as Columbia City Council re-directed money from its water and sewer fund to pay for non-water-and-sewer projects. From 1999 to 2010, the city diverted some $79 million away from the utility fund and spent it on economic development programs, local museums and other needs, The State newspaper reported in 2010.

But through the years, the city routinely has experienced sewer leaks that often make the system the most spill-prone in the state. Many of the problems are with sewer lines that have holes in them. These punctured-riddled lines allow rain water to infiltrate. That then pushes more water through the system and overwhelms pumps stations, resulting in sewer spills. A 2009 Sierra Club report said Columbia had more sewer spills in a decade’s time than any other system in South Carolina.

The EPA began efforts to crackdown on Columbia in 2009 and city officials since have negotiated the settlement with the EPA. During negotiations, they have braced for requirements contained in the enforcement order. Although Columbia has had plans to upgrade its sewer system, the order will force those upgrades to occur, with less discretion by the city on when to make the improvements.

We know we need to improve this system,” Wilson said, noting that “we want our citizens to have the best water possible and the best sewer service possible. We’re looking at this as an oportunity for change and growth.”

The EPA does not need Columbia’s approval to issue the fine, but an EPA spokeswoman said Tuesday the agency would prefer that. The federal department said the issue will be resolved once City Council signs off on the negotiated settlement. The EPA alleges the city violated the federal Clean Water Act through “numerous sanitary sewer overflows and violations of Columbia’s (discharge) permit for its sewage treatment plant,” spokeswoman Davina Marraccini said.

For many Columbia-area residents, improvements to protect water quality are welcome. As he sat on the Congaree River before heading to work Tuesday, Allen Williams said he wants to make sure sewage stays out of the waterway he loves.

I don’t like sewage going into it,” he said from a deck below the Gervais Street Bridge. “You’ve got to keep it clean for the animals and fish and everything.”

Wilson said the order should be final by October. She said Columbia must begin an array of studies in the next two years and begin taking action to resolve sewer system problems. The city already has hired consultants to help with the effort because the work is so voluminous.

Columbia’s efforts to upgrade the system and reduce sewage pollution to rivers could cost $70 million in the next fiscal year, officials said. The entire initiative would take 10 to 12 years, according to the city.

Requirements in the EPA order include:

Within 18 months of the order becoming final, develop an emergency response plan on how to better handle routine sewer system problems, as well as those that would occur during catastrophes such as major floods, tornados or earthquakes.

Within 18 months of the order becoming final, submit a plan on how to better train wastewater department personnel.

Put together an outline of which sewer basins have insufficient capacity d uring heavy rains, average conditions or both. Once that is completed, the city must only authorize new sewer connections if the city has adequate treatment capacity.

Within 18 months of the EPA order becoming final, launch a sewer line maintenance program to include schedules for inspecting sewers and manholes. The city must clean sewer lines, manholes and other parts of the system.

In addition, Columbia must begin work on flood relief and water cleanup at Gill’s Creek, Rocky Branch and Smith Branch.

Tuesday’s news conference touched on the EPA fine, but focused more on Columbia’s “Clean Water 2020” initiative, an effort to comply with the federal order. Wilson said the city will have plenty of work to do and it is seeking small and minority businesses to help with the work. She said the sewer upgrades are an opportunity to not only help the environment, but improve the local economy with jobs.

Bill Davis, hired 2.5 years ago help the city plan comprehensive sewer system improvements, said the city is committed to meeting its goal of cleaner water water by 2020. The initiative is to stop the leaks, follow federal pollution laws, and “be the premier wastewater system in the state, and maybe even the Southeast.”

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