CLEVELAND, Ohio — The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday reached a settlement agreement with Elyria over the city’s sewage system, which spilled raw sewage into the Black River, a problem that has spanned nearly four decades. .
The Justice Department filing with the U.S. District Court in Cleveland indicates that federal officials filed a similar lawsuit against the city in 1984, but the city never fully fixed the system.
The agreement stipulates that the city should spend $250 million on repairs over the next 22 years. Elyria must also pay a $100,000 fine and distribute an additional $100,000 to Ohio’s Safe Surface Water Fund.
“These settlements require significant investments that will improve the health of the Black River and Lake Erie,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Todd Kim said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent must sign the deal before it becomes official.
Wednesday’s deal, called a consent decree, means Nugent will oversee repairs to the city’s system and could order penalties if the city fails.
The lawsuit marks the second time in recent weeks that the Justice Department has entered into a consent decree with a northeast Ohio city for violations of the Clean Water Act. Last week, the department and Lakewood filed a potential consent decree in federal court over the city’s sewage system discharging raw sewage into Lake Erie nearly 2,000 times in six years.
Consent decrees in both cities saved them from paying thousands more in fines.
Elyria Mayor Frank Whitfield, who signed the deal, said in a phone interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer that he did it in part to avoid possible fuel rate increases. sewer for residents.
“We’ve already raised rates, so our goal is to get as many federal and state resources as we can to help, perhaps with (American Rescue Plan Act) funds,” Whitfield said.
He said many other cities in Ohio are struggling to find the balance between updating old sewer systems and raising resident rates. He said he believed the state should help cities.
“We remain committed to resolving our water issues and, at the same time, we try not to place an undue burden on residents,” Whitfield said.
Whitfield, who was unborn when the Justice Department sued the city in 1984, said he didn’t know why city officials in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t fix the system.
“I can’t tell where the heads of these people were,” he said.
The 1984 federal department lawsuit lasted two years before the two sides negotiated a consent judgment that gave a federal judge jurisdiction over remedies. Both parties at the time expected all patches to be finalized by 1993.
The city also agreed to pay a $130,000 fine. Both parties estimated that it would take around $625,000 to fix the issues.
Wednesday’s lawsuit and settlement indicate that the work was never completed and the court never formally released the city from liability.
It was supposed to fix 66 sewer overflows, but 26 were never touched. Three were added after the consent judgment was filed.
More recently, the city has illegally dumped sewage into the river more than 1,100 times since 2011. The sewer collection system has also caused sewage backups in at least 69 homes during the same period.
The Gulf Road sewage treatment plant has discharged sewage into the river at least 150 times in the past 11 years, according to court documents. The processing plant is approximately 10 miles upstream from Lake Erie and empties into the lake. It handles approximately nine million gallons of wastewater per day.
The settlement calls for the city to complete several sewage treatment plant repair projects, including increasing its capacity, adding protections to the system, and completing 12 projects to control sewage overflows. in the sewage system.
Construction is expected to take at least 15 years, and the Department of Justice will carry out another 10 years of monitoring and studies to ensure the fixes are permanent.
The city must submit semi-annual reports to Nugent and the Department of Justice for the duration of the agreement.
Elyria’s sewage system collects and treats waste from around 54,000 residents and includes some 171 miles of pipes over 20 square miles.
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