Lexington agrees to overhaul its sewer systems
The agreement is part of a consent decree reached by the county government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Kentucky’s Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. The consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in Lexington, resolves a joint federal-state lawsuit filed against Lexington in November 2006.
Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry acknowledged that years of neglecting the sewer systems have created “an assortment of operational problems,” resulting in untreated wastewater being discharged into streams and rivers and “repeated instances” in which the sanitary sewer system backs up during heavy rain and, consequently, raw sewage overflows into the streets and roads.
“Those releases constituted violations of the Clean Water Act as well as creating obvious health problems for our community,” Newberry told Lexington residents in a Feb. 19 televised address. “No one wants to permit that situation to continue.”
One of the most serious and urgent problems facing the county government is that in at least nine places, the sanitary and storm sewer systems interconnect.
“In those interconnection points, untreated sewage from the sanitary system has at times found its way into the storm sewer system during heavy rains and then, ultimately, into our streams and rivers,” Newberry told residents.
Newberry emphasized that since he took office on Jan. 1, 2007, “we have never attempted to contest the fact that [the] urban county government repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act.
“Instead, we have been working closely with the EPA and state environmental officials in an effort to clearly identify the problems in our sewer systems and to agree on those steps that we need to take to fix those problems in the most cost-effective manner possible,” Newberry said.
Lexington plans to raise sewer fees to pay for improvements
As part of the consent decree, which still must be approved by the district court following a public comment period, Lexington over the next 11 to 13 years must make extensive improvements to its sewer systems, eliminate unauthorized overflows of raw sewage and reduce pollution levels in urban stormwater. The price tag for the improvements is estimated to exceed $290 million.
In addition, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government must pay a civil penalty of $425,000 to the United States and implement two federal and two state environmental projects—valued at $2.73 million—that would provide additional environmental benefits to the Lexington community.
The county government has said that it plans to pay for the improvements and fine by increasing the household fee for sanitary sewer use by an average of $5 per month this year and an additional $5 per month next year. The county government also has announced plans to institute a monthly stormwater fee.
“I regret that we will be unable to phase the increase in over time, but it is urgent that the work begin immediately—both to maintain our public health and safety and to comply with the schedule set forth in the consent decree,” Newberry said. “Thus, we must pay for the work immediately, and for those reasons, the increase in the sanitary sewer user fee must be fully implemented this year and next.”
To pay for improvements that need to be made immediately—such as the elimination of the nine known interconnections between the sanitary and stormwater sewer systems—Newberry told residents that the county government will sell bonds “to raise the cash necessary to pay for the repair work.”
Highlights of the consent decree
Lexington has two separate sewer systems, serving a population of nearly 250,000 people.
The sanitary sewer system is comprised of pipes that carry industrial and residential waste to one of two wastewater treatment plants. After being treated, the wastewater is discharged into Town Branch Creek or West Hickman Creek and ultimately flows into the Kentucky River.
The stormwater sewer system is comprised of pipes that collect rainwater and runoff along streets and roads and discharge that untreated water into local streams, which carry it on to the Kentucky River.
According to the Department of Justice and the EPA, inadequacies in the infrastructure and management of the two sewer systems have resulted in unlawful discharges of millions of gallons of untreated sewage—known as sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs)—into streams in the Lexington/Fayette County area and increased pollution levels in urban stormwater. The discharges have harmed the water quality in area streams, including Town Branch, Hickman and Elkhorn Creeks, Cane Run, Wolf Run and Blue Springs Branch. These streams ultimately drain to the Kentucky and Ohio rivers.
The major features of the consent decree relating to the sanitary sewer system will require the county government to:
- Identify and quantify recurring discharges of untreated sewage and their causes.
- Evaluate the capacity, design and condition of the components of its sanitary sewer system, including pumping stations and treatment plants.
- Develop and implement remedial measures to eliminate recurring SSOs within 11 to 13 years.
- Improve its management, operation and maintenance programs to prevent future overflows and respond to overflows when they occur.
In addition, the consent decree contains provisions requiring the county government to substantially upgrade its programs to reduce pollution in its storm sewer system. For example, the county must establish a funding mechanism for its stormwater management programs and adopt ordinances to better address sources of pollution to its stormwater system, such as construction sites, developed areas and industrial sites. Moreover, the county will need to meet minimum levels of inspection, screening and monitoring to identify and better address sources of pollution in its storm water system.
According to the settlement, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government will complete two federal supplemental environmental projects. The first project requires the city to restore and preserve approximately 8/10 of a mile of the Cane Run stream at Cold Stream Park, at a cost of $1 million. The second requires the county to manage stormwater runoff at one or more sites in the Lexington area using green infrastructure principles, at an estimated cost of about $230,000.
Green infrastructure is an approach to capturing stormwater that maintains or restores natural hydrology and can reduce sewer overflows, the amount of untreated stormwater discharged into surface waters and reliance on traditional stormwater structures (i.e., pipes, channels, and treatment plants) that are expensive to build, operate and maintain. Green infrastructure practices include rain gardens, porous pavements, green roofs, infiltration planters, trees and tree boxes and rainwater harvesting for nonpotable uses such as toilet flushing and landscape irrigation.
In addition, the county government will conduct two state environmental projects. First, it will eliminate the poorly performing Blue Sky Wastewater Treatment Plant in southeast Fayette County by instead treating that sewage at one of the city’s other treatment plants, at an estimated cost of at least $1.3 million. Second, it will complete a $200,000 evaluation of flooding problems in Lexington and establish a funding mechanism that will raise $30 million over a 10-year period to implement flood-control projects.
“This settlement is an important advance in the protection of water quality in the heart of the commonwealth,” said Robert Vance, secretary of Kentucky’s Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet. “The Urban County Council should be commended for its action in approving the settlement. I would also like to thank Mayor Newberry for his leadership and his decision to make this resolution a priority of his administration.”
A copy of the consent decree is available on the Department of Justice Web site.