The urgent need to upgrade aging wastewater treatment plants across the state and the nation to protect the public health has been one of the few positive developments to flow out of the water crisis in Toledo earlier this month.
That crisis, in which 500,000 Toledo area residents were urged not to drink their tap water for four days, partially has been blamed on an aging treatment plant in that city. The Ohio EPA had found “significant deficiencies” at that plant, saying it was on a path toward “imminent failure.” Toledo Mayor Michael D. Collins called the Collins Park Water Treatment Plant “an atrocity,” a victim of decades of failures by city leaders to make critical improvements to ensure pure water for the populace.
Toledo, however, is not alone. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card on America’s infrastructure, many of the nation’s 14,780 wastewater treatment facilities and 19,739 wastewater pipe systems already fail to work adequately, resulting in the discharge of billions of gallons of untreated and unhealthy sewage into America’s lakes, rivers and streams daily. Collectively, the U.S. water-cleansing network received a grade of D.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Youngstown is no exception to the potential dangers associated with subpar wastewater treatment facilities. Much of its infrastructure is many decades old, and critical improvements are overdue. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the city to invest approximately $147 million in its water-treatment infrastructure.
The improvements it is requiring include $37 million in upgrades to the main treatment plant; $62 million for a new wet-weather facility to deal with heavy rain and a $48 million interceptor to keep wastewater from flowing into the city’s largest and most precious natural asset, Mill Creek Park.
Clearly, those improvements can not be ignored. Equally as clear, however, is the challenge leaders of the cash-strapped city face in financing them. In Toledo, City Council is poised this week to approve annual 7-percent increases in wastewater rates through 2020 to finance $300 million in upgrades there.
In Youngstown, leaders estimate that water users in the city would face 4- to 5-percent rate increases annually for 10 years to comply with the EPA requirements.
In a city in which 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, however, such rate shock in Youngstown cannot be accepted without a challenge. Exploration of all options available to achieve the critically needed improvements with as minimal additional burdens on users as possible must be pursued. Fortunately, city leaders are doing just that.
Among the options under consideration are extending the time period over which the projects must be completed, shutting down parts of the wastewater infrastructure in abandoned parts of the city and challenging the scope of the requirements and payment options in federal court. If the latter option is chosen, neither the city nor the court should give short shrift to the severity of the need for improvements to ensure safety to the environment and to tens of thousands of water consumers.
Other areas the city also should consider include aggressive searches for grant funding to finance the projects. The Mahoning County Sanitary Engineers Office, in its Summer 2014 edition of Pipelines, noted that between January 2013 and June 2014, it had garnered $2.8 million in grants for upgrades to sanitary sewers and water-treatment systems. The state of Ohio has just announced $150 million in no-interest loans to cities needing water-plant updates.
Too, the city must guarantee that its wastewater treatment fund stays completely off limits to would-be looters from other city agencies and departments.
We look forward to a robust and detailed exploration of all viable options, but it is imperative that the search move expeditiously. No one wants hammered with unnecessarily high rate hikes. But, much worse yet, no one in Youngstown wants to fall victim to a water crisis anything near the scale of Toledo’s disaster.