Jul. 26—At first glance, it seems inconceivable: One of Toledo's largest suburbs illegally fouling the Maumee River with untold millions of gallons of filthy, raw sewage for 25 years, and — until last summer — failing to report such bacteria-laden discharges.
But that's what Maumee did.
And, according to a new agreement signed last week between the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Maumee, the state regulator was clueless about the ongoing pollution until the city came forward on July 10, 2020 to report what it had found.
Maumee's illegal discharges occurred during an era in which people were led to believe the Ohio EPA was giving the Maumee River and other western Lake Erie tributaries heightened scrutiny.
The lake's western basin has been sickened by algal blooms almost every summer since 1995, a condition scientists years ago thought might be a thing of the past after the 1972 Clean Water Act ushered in the modern era of sewage treatment.
Now, in a letter addressed to citizens of Maumee and surrounding communities, Maumee Mayor Rich Carr accuses former city employees of "a blatant disregard for [Ohio] EPA regulations," and said their decision to report zero discharges to regulators over many years was a lie.
"Regrettably, these violations did occur over a long period of time and went unreported to the Mayors and Councils as well as Lucas County and the [Ohio] EPA," the letter states. "These violations were a significant failure in communications and staff oversight, and a blatant disregard for [Ohio] EPA regulations. The citizens of Maumee and surrounding communities, and our local waterways deserve better."
The consensus among Lake Erie scientists for several years now has been that sewage problems are on their way out because of what cities like Toledo have done to expand and modernize their sewage-treatment systems.
Hence the focus on agricultural runoff as the primary source of algae-growing phosphorus and nitrogen, two of the most common nutrients found in both commercial fertilizer and livestock manure.
Much of the manure generated by cows, hogs, and chickens confined at concentrated animal feeding operations is spread on crop fields. It is used in addition to or in place of commercial fertilizers, which are rising in cost.
The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation expressed outrage over the Maumee situation after it was made public earlier this month.
"We have always said that water quality issues are complex, involving many sources of nutrients, changing weather patterns, and lack of data," said Adam Sharp, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation's vice president. "We are certainly not absolving agriculture of its contribution to this challenge or responsibility in finding solutions, but what Maumee has been doing over the past two decades is disturbing and makes you wonder if other municipalities with equally rundown sewer infrastructures are having similar issues."
The statement also points out that northwest Ohio farmers were embracing new equipment and technology during the many years Maumee was illegally dumping sewage overloads, while also participating in voluntary water quality programs such as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine's H2Ohio program to help reduce agricultural runoff.
"Farmers have been heavily scrutinized for their impact on Lake Erie and have answered that criticism with unprecedented efforts to help solve the problem. It is time to hold municipal administrations and their wastewater facilities to the same standard," Mr. Sharp said. "If a city's wastewater infrastructure is failing, those issues should be addressed immediately with the same urgent action Ohio agriculture has taken to protect Ohio's water quality."
The issue has already provoked some legislative action.
State Rep. Jon Cross (R., Kenton), whose district includes many farming communities in Hancock, Hardin, and Logan counties, just announced plans for legislation to increase penalties and fines for communities that intentionally dump raw sewage into Lake Erie tributaries — something he claims Toledo, Sandusky, and Port Clinton also still do.
"We need to shoot one across the bow," he said in reference to the bill. "I am angry and frustrated, This has to stop."
The Ohio EPA "recognizes the seriousness of this situation and will be evaluating options to increase compliance oversight" of Maumee and other communities, said Heidi Griesmer, an Ohio EPA spokesman.
Toledo's situation has greatly improved, though, with the recent completion of its $530 million Toledo Waterways Initiative, which took about 20 years to finish. It was undertaken pursuant to a federal consent order reached after 12 years of legal wrangling.
Few overflows occur now compared to what happened before Toledo began the historic expansion and modernization of its Bay View Wastewater Treatment Plant along Summit Street in North Toledo, near Point Place.
It also did massive improvements to its sewage network across the metro region.
Toledo's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency permit still allows for some releases when unusually heavy downpours occur, but officials point out it's a small percentage of what the city routinely allowed into waterways 20 or more years ago.
For his part, Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz — who three years ago called the Ohio General Assembly "a wholly owned subsidiary of the farm bureau" at a law conference and stood by that phrase in subsequent interviews — offered a somewhat tepid response to the Maumee situation, even though Maumee was violating the Clean Water Act while Toledoans footed the nine-figure bill for their system's upgrade.
"All communities that border the Maumee River and Lake Erie want to make sure we do our part to protect one of our most valuable resources," the mayor said in a prepared statement. "It appears that someone in Maumee was not following the rules and taking the correct steps. We are happy that they are taking the correct steps now to get this under control. Toledoans have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure we protect this resource and it is important that everyone protects it."
So how did the situation in Maumee occur?
Mayor Carr and Patrick Burtch, Maumee's city administrator, admitted in separate interviews with The Blade that city's past record-keeping was sloppy at best, and most likely fabricated at times.
"Everybody who would have been responsible for doing this is no longer employed by the city," Mr. Carr said, adding that he has no problem if authorities call for an investigation.
Neither he nor Mr. Burtch were with the city when it signed an Ohio EPA order on Nov. 25, 1985 to separate its combined sewer system to help prevent overflows.
In 1996, Maumee notified the Ohio EPA it had finished installing separate pipes for sanitary waste and storm water, allowing it to get off the formerly combined, single-pipeline system.
Maumee is one of several cities and townships whose sewage is treated at the Lucas County Water Resource Recovery Facility in Monclova Township, along River Road between Maumee and Waterville.
Combined sewer overflows have been a problem for years throughout the Great Lakes region as cities grew too big for all of their waste to go through a single set of pipes.
Up until 1996, when its pipes were supposed to have been separated, Maumee had been allowed by its Ohio EPA permit to release as much as 25 million gallons of combined sewage annually into the Maumee River.
"From that point forward," Ms. Griesmer said, "Maumee was not allowed to have overflows from its sewer collection system."
But it did.
It got around Ohio EPA scrutiny simply by reporting zero discharges — and the state agency never questioned it.
And according to Mr. Carr's letter, the work Maumee told the state it had completed in 1996 was never finished.
The city just kept pumping surplus sewage into the river illegally, according to the mayor's letter.
Maumee has gone through several administration changes over the years.
Mr. Carr, who was first elected in 2012, and Mr. Burtch, who began working for the city about 18 months ago, said they were as surprised as anyone when they were made aware of the problem a year ago.
After divulging what they knew to the Ohio EPA, it "was clear that we were not at liberty" to talk about it until the new agreement was signed, Mr. Carr's letter states.
The agreement signed Wednesday gives Maumee three years to delineate the problem and come up with an engineering fix.
The problem is believed to be so big that the Ohio EPA is giving Maumee until 2051 to complete whatever work engineers deem necessary.
The $100 million price tag is a rough and preliminary ballpark figure, and accounts for some inflation in future years. The city won't know more precisely how much the work will cost until the engineering study is completed three years from now, Mr. Burtch said.
Maumee will try to lessen the burden on its ratepayers by seeking more grants, Mayor Carr said.
"We're going to apply for every possible grant we can get," he said.
More releases are inevitable, though, when major storms come because the fix will take so long, Mr. Burtch said.
"We're scrambling to do the best we can to correct the situation," he said.
Some sewage simply spills into the river during heavy rain, because the sheer volume overwhelms the system, but some of it has been — and will continue to be — intentionally pumped.
"If we don't, we're going to flood 1,800 basements," Mr. Burtch said.
Climate change is a factor, too.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only New England has experienced more frequent and intense storms than the Great Lakes region since the 1950s, which Mr. Burtch said could mean other communities will be grappling with overwhelmed sewage systems they've outgrown.
Ty Higgins, an Ohio Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, agreed Maumee's situation should be a wake-up call.
"We certainly hope this will open some eyes and hopefully will have other cities in the watershed doing some self-assessments of their own," Mr. Higgins said. "There are certainly other sewage infrastructures that are equally as old as Maumee's and may be having issues. We hope it is narrowed down to only Maumee, but there has to be some sort of checks and balances to be sure that other municipalities are holding up their end of the bargain when it comes to the quality of water flowing into Lake Erie."
Mayor Carr also said in his letter to area citizens that he hopes "this unfortunate situation will lead to further discussions regionally about the health of our streams, rivers, and the Great Lakes."
"Many communities, whether permitted by volume or otherwise, are discharging into the Maumee River and Lake Erie," the mayor's letter states. "It is the job of the [Ohio] EPA to monitor that discharge and the cities' jobs to comply."
The Ohio EPA did not offer an explanation for how its oversight process failed to catch Maumee's problem, one which Mr. Burtch said is "a big drop" on everyone's part.
The state agency, though, stuck behind three reports it has issued since 2016, called "nutrient mass balance studies," which use best available science to identify leading sources of algae-forming phosphorus and nitrogen.
The latest report shows 89 percent of the Maumee River's phosphorus came from agricultural runoff and other nonpoint sources, while 92 percent of the Sandusky River's phosphorus came primarily from agriculture.
In other words, the science shows that agricultural runoff far and away is the biggest source of algae-forming nutrients, and raw sewage is a minor contributor.
Ms. Griesmer said that hasn't changed.
"The situation in Maumee would not affect the technical findings and conclusions presented in the agency's Mass Balance Study," she said.
Staff writer Mike Sigov contributed to this report.
First Published July 26, 2021, 7:00am