Our Sewers are Killing Us

Hamilton County residents are being harmed by sewage overflows, sewer backups and unaffordable sewer rates. While the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) has been working on a project since 2006 to solve the problem and has a court-mandated program to help people experiencing sewer backups, few are getting help from the program. Low-income residents are struggling to keep pace with rate increases, resulting in thousands of households losing access to water each year. Our public health is at risk from exposure to untreated sewage.

To make matters worse, as our region begins to grapple with the impacts of climate change, MSD and our various Stormwater Management Utilities are not prepared to effectively manage stormwater jointly for our watershed region. Stormwater overwhelms our outdated combined sewer system, even during moderately heavy rains.

MSD has systematically locked ratepayers out of decision-making for how sewers will be fixed and has created a barrier to public transparency for money spent and progress made. The public reporting that MSD does on its website is confusing to Hamilton County residents and even to the County Commissioners who approve the MSD budget. Various completed projects have not alleviated overflows, backups, and overland flooding. MSD largely ignores resident complaints.

Communities United For Action presents the People’s Sewer Justice Platform as a solution for systemic changes that will force our public utility to be open, transparent and accountable to ratepayers. While MSD has made some improvements, MSD governance is broken, and now is the time to fix the system.       

Government Waste

In 2004 the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Water Act.  The sewer system is designed to deposit raw sewage into our waterways when the system reaches capacity during heavy rains.  MSD, which is governed by both Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati, settled with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) on a court-enforceable schedule, called a consent decree, to spend $1.5 billion on major capital improvements to the sanitary and combined sewer systems.

The USEPA requires Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati to submit a joint plan for the next phase of fixes to our sewers, but due to ongoing disputes between the City and County, the courts have ordered them into a second round of mediation, costing ratepayers more time and more money. MSD customers are still waiting for a plan, even though the joint plan was originally due to the USEPA by June of 2017. Project Groundwork, MSD’s project to fix the sewers, is now projected to cost ratepayers $3.2 billion.

Because of inadequate oversight and unimaginative solutions to MSD’s overflow problems, MSD ratepayers have experienced a 234% rate increase since 2000.

Communities United For Action is calling for a new, required process for involving residents in Project Groundwork.

Residents are the only experts on what is happening in their communities. The  disconnect between public officials working to solve the problem and residents experiencing the problem is often devastating.

MSD completed a project to separate storm and sewage pipes in Mt. Airy. However, instead of solving the problem, the residents experienced more overland flooding and sewage backups after the project was completed.

Residents in Bond Hill experience more sewer backups and street flooding after a MSD project was completed on Dale Rd. They are dissatisfied with MSD’s poor communication about the project and a lack of checks in place to evaluate its effectiveness. 

While public servants claim to support public input, residents are locked out of decision-making. In a recent status update to the court, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley said that while he’s “all for public hearings,” he trusts the engineers at MSD to know what needs to be done to fix the sewers. In three public hearings hosted by the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners in March and April 2018, no representative from the City of Cincinnati or MSD was in attendance. 

CUFA supports a new method for involving affected residents to define the problem and develop solutions for sewer overflows in their neighborhoods.

Communities United For Action is calling for public project audits and effective communication with residents during planning, implementation and post-project evaluation. Ratepayers deserve to know whether completed projects have overrun cost projections and if they are effectively solving the problems.

Communities United For Action is calling for MSD to fix the sewers first in neighborhoods hardest hit by sewer backups and overflows. Until the issues causing sewer backups are resolved, MSD will continue to spend millions of dollars yearly to pay claims to sewer backup victims. The Consent Decree with the USEPA requires that MSD focus on the areas hardest hit by backups and with the worst sewage overflows. Yet, the proposed plans from the City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County fail to address several of the neighborhoods dealing with these issues, including but not limited to Bond Hill, Roselawn, Golf Manor, Lincoln Heights, Covedale, Green Township and Northside.

Hamilton County residents are getting sick and staying sick because their basements continue to backup. One CUFA member was recently hospitalized with pneumonia, and believes that the mold growing in his basement from repeated backups is compromising his health. Another member says that even though MSD took responsibility for multiple backups in their home, the sewer district has never cleaned their property. 

Residents of Springlawn Ave. in Northside complain that during rain events, their backyards fill with sewage and stormwater.  MSD has stalled fixing the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in their watershed and has told the residents they may have to wait another decade or more to resolve the overflows. MSD had promised to fix the overflows in 2012, but they scrapped that plan in favor of other projects elsewhere in the County. 

Residents on Muddy Creek in Green Township have experienced repeated sewage back-ups in their homes which sometimes fill entire basements. Exasperated at MSD’s inaction to resolve the problem, many residents have given up on their “American Dream” and just want MSD to buy their homes.

Communities United For Action is calling for collaborative management of our watershed. Combined sewers were designed to overflow when they are filled with too much rainwater. Various municipal Stormwater Management Utilities operate throughout Hamilton County, and while they occasionally work with MSD on projects to resolve stormwater issues, the agencies largely do not work together to manage stormwater runoff in our watershed region.

Residents complain that when they experience sewer backups, MSD and Stormwater Agencies routinely blame each other instead of resolving the issues that caused their backups.  The residents receive no help from either agency.

Repeated sewer backups and runoff from surrounding development have made one CUFA member’s home uninhabitable. MSD blames Green Township while Green Township tells her that MSD is responsible. When MSD came to investigate one of her recent sewer backups they could not locate MSD pipes running under her property. They blamed the issue on the resident and on overland flooding. Meanwhile, she still cannot live in the home she continues to pay a mortgage and utilities to maintain. She has confronted these issues since 1999.

Bureaucratic barriers between agencies harm ratepayers and prevent the development of creative solutions to keep stormwater out of our sewers. Until stormwater is minimized in our sanitary sewer system, it is a problem of both MSD and Stormwater Management and they must work together on the solution.

Communities United For Action is calling for comprehensive, cost-effective green infrastructure solutions that focus on alleviating sewer backups and overflows by removing stormwater from our sanitary sewers. To date, the bulk of the projects completed and planned have focused on increasing capacity at wastewater treatment plants rather than getting to the heart of the problem: too much stormwater in the entire system.

In an area of Norwood where MSD has begun installing backup prevention devices in homes, residents worry that this solution will merely shift the problem to their neighbors. After observing where water flows during storms, many residents suggested constructing rain gardens to absorb more stormwater into the ground before it reaches the combined sewers.

Hamilton County must enact comprehensive guidelines for development to address impermeable surfaces to ensure that these surfaces do not increase our problem with runoff.  Our combined sewers are already overwhelmed with too much stormwater; we need a long-term solution to this problem.

MSD and the stormwater utilities should work to implement solutions that will allow stormwater to soak into the ground before it reaches combined sewers.  We support green solutions like rain gardens, daylighting streams that were once buried, and helping residents install rain barrels to decrease roof runoff.

Communities United For Action is calling for a national search for an MSD Director who has extensive experience implementing green infrastructure solutions to combined sewer overflows. MSD needs visionary leaders capable of managing our watershed in collaboration with stormwater agencies to minimize the amount of stormwater entering our combined sewers. MSD needs a Director willing to report to the public and to work to restore public trust in the agency.

Communities United For Action is calling for local jobs for fixing our sewers. Hamilton County ratepayers are bearing the cost of fixing our sewers.  We want the work to go to Hamilton County residents for fixing and maintaining our sewer infrastructure so that our infrastructure investments stay in the local economy.

 

Public Transparency & Oversight

MSD has a long history of mismanaging public resources. A recent state audit uncovered $779,000 in improper payments to contractors between 2009-2015.  This money must be repaid to ratepayers. While the former Director of MSD was quietly dismissed, during his tenure hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts were awarded without following established City checks and balances.

In the wake of the recent state audit findings, Acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney told the Cincinnati Enquirer that “MSD’s process is much more equitable, transparent, competitive, and regulated than it was during the time period covered in this audit.” But the public reporting done by MSD on its website does not clearly state what projects are included in Project Groundwork, the expected outcome of those projects, the results of completed projects, and the cost to ratepayers.  A resident of Hamilton County could not glean this critical information by visiting MSD’s webpage or by reviewing the budget presented to Hamilton County Commissioners each year.

MSD has no plan to change the way it publicly reports its finances. Meanwhile, they continue to propose rate increases, unaffordable solutions and delay fixing the problem for many of the hardest-hit Hamilton County neighborhoods. 

Residents want to know: if systems have been put in place since 2015 to avoid mismanagement of public money, what are they? How will MSD demonstrate to the public that it can be trusted to manage the largest public works project in Hamilton County for the benefit of all ratepayers?

Communities United For Action is calling for yearly, independent auditing of MSD. It is our money, and MSD should be directly accountable to ratepayers for money spent. MSD has demonstrated that internal auditing is not sufficient to achieve public accountability.  Ratepayers should not be expected to accept more rate increases without receiving annual, independent audits that clearly state the effectiveness of Project Groundwork’s completed projects and the costs of those projects.

Communities United For Action is calling for an easily understandable, public dashboard for reporting progress on Project Groundwork. The dashboard must include: 

  • all projects related to fixing our combined sewers and their expected and actual outcomes
  • Budgets and actual expenditures for each Project Groundwork project
  • any contractors hired for the projects;
  • target beginning and completion dates; and
  • actual completion dates and progress. 

Communities United For Action opposes MSD oversight by an appointed “Citizen Board,” and calls on the City and County to swiftly resolve their differences to operate MSD for the benefit of all ratepayers. Infighting between the City and County has contributed to increased rates, delayed solutions and more sewage backups. The City of Cincinnati and Board of County Commissioners have proposed that the County assume the operation of MSD with oversight by an appointed “Citizen Board.”  Hamilton County’s existing citizen boards are unaccountable to the public and serve their own interests instead. The proposed “Citizen Board” could pave the way for privatization of MSD and will exclude ratepayers. While “Citizen Board” sounds great in theory, in practice such a board will create an unaccountable bureaucracy that would further erode real public oversight.

 

Sewer Backup Response Program

As part of the consent decree, the court mandated the establishment of programs to clean properties and pay damage claims where inadequate sewer capacity caused sewer backups.  The consent decree stipulates that MSD should install backflow-prevention devices, pumping systems, and in some cases purchase property contaminated by recurring sewage backups. 

Sewer backups are making us sick. Communities United For Action obtained records from MSD detailing sewer backup complaints from August 2016 to May 2018. Of the 7,700 residents that complained, 1,689 have experienced repeated sewer backups. Less than a third of the complainants received help with clean up from MSD’s Sewer Backup Response Program, and fewer than 25% of these residents received any payment for their damage claims.

Each year, MSD spews 11.5 billion gallons of raw sewage from Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) into our yards and waterways. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found that these overflows severely impact our health.  Researchers studied emergency room records from 2010-2014 and found increased hospital visits related to asthma, gastrointestinal issues and skin and soft tissue infections in children living within 500 yards of a CSO.

Unfair rules in MSD’s Sewer Backup Response Program screen people out of the program rather than helping them.  Many residents are unaware of the requirement to call MSD within 24 hours of discovering the sewer backup. Because MSD doesn’t advertise the program well, many residents don’t call right away because they don’t know the program exists, and they don’t realize they only have 24 hours to report the problem. Some don’t call because MSD has previously denied them help.  This is true  even when the cause of repeated backups is inadequate capacity in the sewers. 

MSD frequently blames the problem on homeowners, even in cases where residents have hired plumbers who identify the cause of their backup as inadequate sewer capacity. Instead of accepting responsibility for inadequate sewer capacity, MSD uses overland flooding and downspouts connected to the sewers as an excuse to deny help to sewer overflow victims.

MSD tells people that using their basement as it was intended may prevent the homeowner from receiving help from them in the future.  Residents are misled to think  they cannot sue for damages not covered under the Sewer Backup Response Program.

Communities United For Action is calling for an independent audit of the Sewer Backup Response Program and Sewer Backup Prevention Program to ensure their compliance with the Consent Decree mandates.

Further, we are calling for the following changes to the current program:

  • An end to denials based on failure to report within 24 hours when the cause of the sewer backup is found to be inadequate capacity in the sewers;
  • An end to claim denials when overland flooding is present along with sewer backups caused by inadequate sewer capacity;
  • Public notification of the Sewer Backup Response Program in our monthly water bills;
  • Removal of the clause included in settlement affidavits that MSD cannot be held responsible for further damage. Claimants can legally sue MSD for further damages not covered under the Sewer Backup Response Program.
  • Approve everyone who qualifies for the Prevention Program. Immediately install backup devices at no cost to the homeowner.  Provide cost-free maintenance of these devices. 


Rate Affordability

Since 2011, MSD has studied rate affordability. In 2015, the Hamilton County Commissioners appointed a Rate Affordability Task Force to further study the issue. The task force made its recommendations in May of 2016, including a Customer Assistance Program (CAP) to help people afford their sewer bills. We are still waiting for implementation of this program.

Since 2000, sewer rates have increased 234%. Because the unaffordable sewer bills are tied into our water bills, people are losing access to water. In 2017, 8,316 households had their water shut off due to non-payment. While the Hamilton County Commissioners agreed to implement a Customer Assistance Program in 2019, the program’s scope is limited to elderly homeowners and does not take into consideration the low-income families who either rent or own their homes.  

Every month of delay for the CAP means hundreds more water shutoffs. Communities United For Action has advocated for an immediate end to water shutoffs since November 2017, but found no relief from the City or County, even while Commissioner Portune & Councilmember Sittenfeld supported a moratorium on shutoffs until a CAP is in place. Greater Cincinnati is the only metropolitan area in Ohio that does not currently have a CAP.

 Communities United For Action is calling for immediate implementation of a comprehensive Customer Assistance Program, including:

  • help for seniors;  
  • Income-based assistance for homeowners;
  • Temporary hardship assistance; 
  • and assistance for multi-metered units that house low-income tenants

Access to clean water is a human right, and we cannot delay implementation of comprehensive CAP any longer. The majority of Hamilton County residents living in poverty are renters. Columbus, Ohio sponsors a program that can serve as a model to include these residents in the program. Communities United For Action is calling for Commissioners to continue the sewer rate freeze and the City of Cincinnati to issue a moratorium on water shutoffs until all of the above programs are implemented.  

Communities United For Action is calling for restructuring of sewer rates to be fair to residential ratepayers. Homes are less of a burden on the sewer system than commercial and industrial sites.  Homes create a much lower volume of runoff than mostly impermeable parking lots and flat-roofed industrial and commercial buildings.  All sewer customers’ bills should accurately reflect actual usage rather than  charging residents minimum usage rates even if their actual usage falls below the minimum charge while giving bulk discounts to others.

Conclusion

The Metropolitan Sewer District is a publicly-owned utility acting without transparency and without accountability to the public. The state audit demonstrates the few checks and balances existing to keep MSD from mismanaging public money have failed. The public demands a utility that is responsive to issues, reports to the public, and is responsible to its ratepayers.

Sewer backup victims want a clear and fair process for getting help from MSD when inadequate sewer capacity causes their backups. Residents dealing with overflows in their yards and repeated backups want MSD to work with them to develop a plan for resolving their issues in a timely manner.

Finally, Hamilton County residents deserve a public utility that does not waste our public resources. Oversight must be public and transparent. Operation must be ethical and just.