Akron fights U.S. EPA over 'wasteful' sewer project that could raise customers' rates 20%

Mayor Dan Horrigan leads a tour last week near the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel and the proposed site of a new, mandated facility in Akron.
Mayor Dan Horrigan leads a tour last week near the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel and the proposed site of a new, mandated facility in Akron.

As wild yellow flowers bobbed in the light rain, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan left his umbrella behind and crossed a bridge over the Little Cuyahoga River last week.

He turned right on the Towpath Trail curving around the end of the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel. Then he stopped at a grassy field edged by tall trees climbing a steep hill to the new homes up on Hickory Street.

Horrigan was incensed as he surveyed the scenic backdrop for the most consequential fight of his two terms in office. Here, with a formal notice issued Monday to federal officials, the mayor said he is planting his flag in a battle over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s insistence that Akron build a $209 million Enhanced High Rate Treatment plant, or EHRT, which Horrigan calls “highly wasteful and unproductive.”

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan stands near the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel and points to the proposed site of a $209 million facility mandated by a 2004 consent decree.
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan stands near the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel and points to the proposed site of a $209 million facility mandated by a 2004 consent decree.

Horrigan envisioned the project’s footprint — mature trees and the Towpath Trail bulldozed to make way for a 123,000-square-foot complex with a concrete basin the size of a football field. It’s an ugly picture, in Horrigan’s mind, the thought of this “huge Motel 6 buried into that embankment.”

City officials project sewer customers could face a 20% rate increase to build the new treatment plant, which is estimated to contribute less than 1% of the entire environmental benefits of a federally mandated sewer reconstruction project.

Since taking office in 2016, Horrigan and city engineers at their posts since the 1990s have found more cost than benefit in building an EHRT. The facility would be the last — and one of the most expensive — of the 26 projects required in the more than $1 billion court-ordered sewer reconstruction mandate.

Horrigan won’t stand for what he sees as more money than sewage going down the drain. The $209 million cost is more than enough cover all of Akron’s public school lingering construction needs or eradicate lead service lines many times over or replace more than 100 miles of water mains, of which a third in the city are at least 90 years old, or fund annual road-resurfacing for the next 40 years.

“Even if (federal officials) said this: ‘We will pay for it.’ I'd say no, because it's the worst spending of $209 million that I can think of,” Horrigan told the Beacon Journal in an interview last week.

Horrigan is returning to the banks of the Little Cuyahoga River on Tuesday to hold a press conference as he goes public with his alternative plan to the costly treatment facility. He will be joined by Council President Margo Sommerville, County Executive Ilene Shapiro and community stakeholders in the Cuyahoga River and national forest.

Horrigan proposes to add bacterial treatment to a nearby 10 million-gallon water storage facility and lend financial assistance to county projects that would address failing private septic systems in Springfield, Lakemore and Peninsula, which ultimately pollute the same watershed and rivers the U.S. EPA says Akron must protect.

There's no estimated cost for upgrades to the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility, including the possible construction of a new building, chemical storage, feed pumps and tank modifications. City Council has authorized Public Service to test the bacterial treatment process, which is still in the design stage. Administrators say the savings, even with financial assistance for other communities in the Cuyahoga River watershed, would be substantial compared to the $209 million EHRT plant.

The county estimates the cost of the sewer projects in Springfield, Lakemore and Peninsula at $40 million to $50 million.

The U.S. EPA declined an interview, saying it won't comment on ongoing negotiations over environmental enforcement cases.

The Ohio EPA told the Beacon Journal it is endorsing Akron's alternative plan as "more cost effective" with "more meaningful projects."

'How much is enough?' Mayor says sewer project needs to end

Akron, the Ohio EPA and U.S. EPA — with the U.S. Department of Justice at the table — signed one of the strictest consent decrees in America in 2014.

The city would not be allowed to let a single drop of sewage spill into local waterways, except during extreme weather that doesn't typically happen every year. Part of Akron's alternative plan is to allow for three overflows a year. If the city had gone ahead and built the EHRT as the U.S. EPA continues to require, the treatment plant would have sat stocked with chemicals doing nothing for nearly the past 500 days, which is how long it's been since the city's improved sewer system has overflowed.

Local, state and federal officials began talking about Akron's sewer discharge in the mid-1990s. Like many Midwestern cities, Akron's central sewers also carried stormwater, which resulted in "combined sewer overflows" during heavy storms.

Chris Ludle, director of public service, and Emily Collins, a strategic adviser to Mayor Dan Horrigan, talk about the remaining work to be done on the Akron sewer project while standing at the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility on Wednesday.
Chris Ludle, director of public service, and Emily Collins, a strategic adviser to Mayor Dan Horrigan, talk about the remaining work to be done on the Akron sewer project while standing at the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility on Wednesday.

But the city has come a long way in a relatively short time to clean up the problems buried with its century-old infrastructure.

Thirty years ago, the city would "close the gate" to its water treatment facility whenever more than 100 million gallons rushed the system, Public Service Director Chris Ludle said. With the gate closed, everything dumped straight into the Cuyahoga River.

More than 50 years since the river caught fire from industrial polluting, all but the Gorge Dam has been removed to allow natural flow to clear up the water, which the U.S. EPA has recognized nationally for improved quality. And after nearly a decade of completing 24 of the 26 projects in the federal consent decree, Akron now has a sewage system that can handle 92% of combined sewer overflows in a typical year.

Upgrades to the water treatment facility alone allow the city to process 280 million gallons of wastewater daily, nearly triple its processing power just 10 years ago. When the Northside Interceptor Tunnel is completed, the city says its system will capture 99% of what would potentially overflow in a typical year.

That makes dealing with the last 1% of overflow by building a $209 million EHRT so hard to accept, Horrigan said.

"How much is enough?" Horrigan asked. "They're not rhetorical questions anymore; it's more than enough. This community's paid more than enough to clean up the river. And this needs to be done. We need to be done with this project."

Horrigan, who co-chairs the water council for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has watched as other Midwestern cities with the same combined sewer overflow issue get exemptions from the U.S. EPA. Parts of the sewer infrastructure in Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus, for example, are allowed to overflow four times a year.

Akron's entire system cannot overflow once.

Chris Ludle, director of public service, talks about the remaining work to be done on the Akron sewer project while standing at the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility on Wednesday.
Chris Ludle, director of public service, talks about the remaining work to be done on the Akron sewer project while standing at the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility on Wednesday.

Akron's case for an alternative sewer fix

The EHRT would treat the last 100 million or so gallons that might overflow in a typical year, though nothing has overflowed for the past year and a half.

Akron's plan to treat for bacteria at the 10 million-gallon Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility would allow the city to drain the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel faster in heavy storms, decreasing the potential overflow from 100 million down to about 62 million.

In 2011 when the city agreed to the EHRT in the list of 26 projects, hydraulic modeling suggested that the proposed Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel, a $315 million undertaking that came online in 2021, would overflow seven times a year, spilling 191 million gallons of untreated water into the Little Cuyahoga River annually.

But the city went with a nearly mile-long tunnel that’s 27 feet wide instead of 24 feet wide. In a torrential downpour, the larger diameter bore holds 25.6 million gallons of water, nearly doubling the city sewer system's 57 million-gallon holding capacity. Operators let it fill up, moving water and draining linked sewers on demand to prevent overflows.

The city’s water treatment facility is also more effective. New modeling benefits from more accurate measurements of pipe thickness and new sensors that measure flow throughout the system.

The upgrades, along with more recent and regular testing since 2014, have resulted in what the city calls a “new, more technologically advanced” and “more accurate” prediction that the OCIT will overflow only three times, instead of seven, in a typical year. That’s the difference between dealing with 100 million gallons of excess flow versus the 191 million gallon estimate from 2011.

The city says the U.S. EPA accepted the newer model in the second and third amendments but still refuses to accept a baseline of three potential overflows in the proposed fourth amendment.

Meanwhile, the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel will celebrate 500 days of no overflows on July 20. And it was under unusual weather conditions that the system last failed on March 7, 2022, when heavy rain and melting snow overwhelmed the system.

Do the benefits justify the cost?

While the benefits of the Enhanced High Rate Treatment plant have shrunk with better modeling and proven infrastructure upgrades, the estimated cost has nearly tripled.

Originally priced at $73 million in 2011, the 13,000-square-foot facility and 300-foot-long storage area would now cost more than $209 million, according to a study submitted to the city of Akron in January by DLZ, a private engineering firm.

"Yes," an Ohio EPA spokesperson said when asked by the Beacon Journal if the city's alternative plan would satisfy the federal consent decree. "Even without building the (E)HRT, Akron will be controlling 99% of its wet weather flow, an extremely high level of control."

With disinfection treatment at the Cuyahoga Street Storage Facility, Akron officials estimate they would be able to capture all but 0.04% of potential overflow. The facility currently works like a 10 million-gallon sink with a garbage disposal. Before the Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel backs ups and manhole covers geyser in the city, the storage facility fills to relieve pressure. A drain mashes up cups, soccer balls, even bricks as it later pumps the wastewater to the treatment facility on Akron-Peninsula Road.

For economic perspective, the Beacon Journal calculates that the OCIT tunnel, which reduced typical-year overflows by 466.7 million gallons and cost $315.3 million, is five times more cost effective than building an EHRT to treat the last 62 million gallons of potential overflow. Put another way, sewer customers ultimately footing the bill are paying $0.67 for every gallon of overflow the OCIT tunnel captures and $3.37 for every gallon the enhanced high rate treatment facility would treat.

"How much is too much on the cost side?" Emily Collins, an attorney who specializes in environmental law and serves as senior strategic counsel to Horrigan, has asked the U.S. EPA. "And we started with the EHRT at $73 million, and it's ballooned to $209 million. So, the question now that we've posed to EPA is at what point is zero (overflow) too much money? And they have not been able to answer that question. It just keeps blowing up further and further, and it's not getting any better. So it's not about cost to them."

What does this mean for sewer rates and bills?

Akron’s water rates are among the lowest in the state, said Ludle, the city's public service director. That water usage, though, is used to bill for sewage. And two-thirds or more of those rates is tied to the sewer project, which would end up costing about $1.2 billion without the EHRT and about $1.4 billion with it.

Sewer rates work like a consumption tax, falling equally on high-income and low-income customers. Although programs like Akron Cares exist to help struggling residents who fall behind, the overall result is that higher bills cut deeper into the budgets of the city’s poorest households. "These staggering costs represent true hardships for Akron's most vulnerable population," the city is arguing in its call for formal dispute resolution.

And rates could jump 20% if the city is forced to build the EHRT, according to research by Horrigan's team.

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The city regularly hires consultants at Raftelis to assess the impact that sewer construction will have on the self-contained sewer fund. That ratepayer-fed fund, along with whatever grants the city can find, is the sole revenue source paying back loans to complete the more than $1.2 billion federally mandated sewer project.

Though the city began planning to deal with its combined sewer overflow system in 1994, the most expensive work got underway in 2014 following the signing of the consent decree. Since then, sewer bills have nearly tripled for the average customer following unpopular rate hikes approved before Horrigan took office.

With creative engineering, lower-than-expected bids and low-interest state loans that don't have to be repaid for 45 years in some cases, Horrigan has managed to avoided sewer rate increases during his two terms in office.

But the next rate hike is not a matter of if but when, he said.

While customers have reduced water usage with more efficient appliances and the economic pressure of higher bills, revenue from sewer and water bills is not projected to cover debt service, particularly by 2026 when the work is expected to wrap up and the city will be paying on all its loans.

How much will the total sewer project cost?

The city has spent $740 million so far, after completing 24 of the 26 mandated sewer projects.

Another $272 million has been allocated for the Northside Interceptor Tunnel, which includes a sewer separation project along Riverside Drive. And $150 million is budgeted for sewer maintenance associated with the overall project.

Akron sewer project: As Akron's $1 billion sewer system overhaul winds down, are more rate increases coming?

That brings the grand total Akron could spend to $1.16 billion before considering the cost of the fourth amendment or the more expensive $209 million EHRT, which would put total spending closer to $1.4 billon.

Reach reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan fights U.S. EPA's $209 million sewer plan