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OH Sewer Upgrade Burdens Residents

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

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An Environmental Protection Agency-mandated $1.2 billion sewer overhaul for Akron, Ohio, is saddling residents with continuously increasing water and sewer bills. Though the project must be completed by 2028, the associated debt is slated to last much longer.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the city began trying to overhaul its combined sewer system back in 1994, but EPA mandates outpaced progress made by the city.

Akron’s Sewer System

According to Cleveland.com, the sewer overhaul includes plans for three large tunnel sites connected to create the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, work that was completed in September 2018 by Rosie the tunnel borer. (In June of that year, residents raised concerns that the dig may be affecting the structural integrity of their homes.)

A joint venture between Illinois-based Kenny Construction Co. and Tokyo-based Obayashi Corp. was responsible for boring the Ohio tunnel, which is 27 feet in diameter, runs 6,240 feet long and is capable of holding 25.6 million gallons of stormwater and sewage during heavy rain.

Deep drop shafts located at each of the sites will connect the sewers. Sewer separation projects and storage basins are also currently under construction around the city.

Akron Waterways Renewed writes on its website that portions of the city’s water system were built as combined sewers in the early 1900s, some of which were built prior to 1931, with others being constructed prior to 1964. Roughly 25 percent of Akron’s sewers are combined, meaning that sanitary sewers combine with storm sewers. During some rain events over the years, combined sewer overflows—a mixture of stormwater and some sanitary sewage—would find a way into nearby waterways.

Courtesy of Akron Waterways Renewed

According to Cleveland.com, the sewer overhaul includes plans for three large tunnel sites connected to create the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, work that was completed in September 2018 by Rosie the tunnel borer.

In 1972, former President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act, a move meant to restore the health of national waters by preventing pollution from a number of sources. In 2009, a federal judge signed a decree ordering that the city take immediate action against its sewer problems.

After tense negotiations between the U.S. and Ohio EPA and U.S. District Judge John Adams, former Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic asked to be able to spread out the work over 30 years. The judge rejected the request, and instead approved one of the most stringent Clean Water Act decrees in the nation, according to the Beacon Journal. Though the mandate provided guidelines, no financial assistance, other than some low interest loans, was offered.

A report from Infrastructure USA, titled “Wasted: How to Fix America’s Sewers,” makes a case for modified sewer rate structures, as well as better renewed or enhanced federal and state aid, re-examining EPA affordability guidelines and a more hands-on shift to green infrastructure. Though demands on the city haven’t changed, Akron has managed to save some money along the way.

According to the Beacon Journal, the project was originally estimated at $1.4 billion, but the city was able to save money enough to lower the cost to $1.2 billion. To date, 20 projects have been completed, there are six ongoing and another three on deck.

Financially Burdening City Residents

Rates have reportedly gone up for residents in 2014 and 2015, which resulted in the city collecting $21 million to $32 million extra each year, once expenses were covered. This has also allowed Akron to build up a $101 million cash reserve, which could help cover sewer overhaul expenses for a while. Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan noted that another tax rate hike can only be avoided through the end of 2020, when the bill comes due for $184.1 million cost associated with the city’s new borer and the mile-long, sewer tunnel under downtown. The city’s annual debt payments for the projects are slated to reach $56 million by 2026.

As it stands, the majority of Akron City Council members oppose another rate increase, citing that the bill disproportionately impacts the poor.

“My residents can’t afford (another rate hike) and we as a city just went and asked them to approve a .25 percent income tax increase (to pay for road paving, police and fire services),” said Councilman Donnie Kammer. “We need to find better ways to fund this project even though I think the current mayor is doing a better job addressing the issue.”

There is also concern over how high utility bills will impact the city’s plans for attracting residents and planning for growth.

According to WKSU, the project is slated to be 85 percent completed by this fall. Much of the work over the coming year will focus on separating the sewers.

   

Tagged categories: concrete; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Sewer systems; Tunnel; Wastewater Plants

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