The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the city of Columbia, SC, to pony up nearly $600 million in water and sewer infrastructure upgrades or face a federal takeover of the municipal system.
The ultimatum caps years of sewage spills, deferred maintenance, rejection of maintenance funding, and conflict among local, state and federal officials.
6 Months, 1M Gallons of Sewage
Columbia has reported 157 sewage spills in the past six months alone, dumping nearly 1 million gallons of raw sewage into area creeks, rivers or soil, according to the State Department of Health and Environmental Control. That is more than any other system in the state and nearly three times the spills of the No. 2 system.
From 1992 through 2007, DHEC cited the city at least 14 times and fined it more than $127,000 for water system or sewage system problems, reports The State newspaper.
The problems landed the city’s Saluda River on a national list of the top 10 most endangered rivers for 2009.
The council has deferred regular maintenance on the system for at least 15 years, according to city manager Steve Gantt.
“We have not done the preventative maintenance we should have done in the past,” utilities and engineering director Joey Jaco told council members at a meeting last week, The State reported.
|Emissions from the Columbia Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant flow into the Congaree River.|
“If you don’t do preventative maintenance it will eventually fail. We’re in that situation now with some of our equipment.”
The EPA expects maintenance to be performed annually, Jaco added. “They won’t understand us deferring it.”
Some of the system’s equipment “spends more time in the shop than it does in the field,” he said.
Federal Permits Violated
The EPA has notified Columbia in writing that it has violated its national wastewater discharge permit because of irregularities in the way it operates its pre-treatment program, The State said.
The parties are currently in discussions—sealed by a confidentiality agreement—to negotiate a settlement.
Gantt told a shocked council that the catch-up maintenance would cost between $500 million and $600 million, which would require substantial water and sewer rate increases and the issuing of major bonds. Additional delays will compound the cost.
“We have spent a lot of money in the last year,” Jaco said, according to the Columbia Free Times. “We are anticipating that we’re going to have to spend a lot more as a result of our agreement with EPA.”
If the EPA takes over, it could impose any rate increase it wants, officials said.
‘We’re Going to Get in Trouble’
The current crisis stems from an EPA raid of the city’s wastewater plant in 2008 and a resulting consent decree. The raid followed a year in which the Columbia Metro Waste Water Treatment Plant, which operates near I-77 on the banks of the Congaree River, reported more than a dozen unpermitted discharges
EPA and DHEC officials raided the plant in December 2008 and served criminal search warrants that alleged false record-keeping and pollution issues. No criminal activity was found, but the infrastructure was discovered to be crumbling.
The city is also under pressure from DHEC, which recently renewed Columbia’s operating permit based on the city’s assurances that it would perform those maintenance projects.
“I have told Joey [Jaco] because of EPA requirements to go full speed ahead or else we’re going to get in trouble,” said Bill Ellis, the city’s CFO.
Rate Hikes Rejected
The problem has been brewing for years. A 2006 private study said the city would need to increase sewer and water rates by 5 percent five times over five years or face a lower city bond rating.
The city council approved the report but never raised rates, even rejecting a 2010 request by Gantt for a 2 percent increase, the Free Times said.
After negotiating with EPA officials, the city says it plans to spend $49.2 million next budget year on sewage system improvements, as part of a long-term, $500 million campaign to upgrade the water and sewage systems.
Read Their Lips
To do so, however, the city will have to borrow money and raise water and sewage rates—and council members remain unanimously dead set against a rate increase.
Council members committed earlier this year to not raising taxes or rates for the current budget, and one councilwoman said last week that the council had to be mindful of residents “having to sacrifice what field trip a child goes on because of what they have to pay in their water rates and their sewer rates.”
Echoed another councilman: “I don’t have an interest in a rate increase at all. I know that puts us in a bad position.”
If council does not approve a rate increase, the city will have to focus all of its resources on the sewage projects and ignore the $54 million in scheduled water system improvement projects, the Free Times reported.
And that, said Jaco, would be “taking a step back on our [water] system.”
The city will hold a public hearing to discuss the proposed rate hike and water and sewer budgets.