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 Project Groundwork 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 Stormwater overwhelms our outdated combined sewer system, even during moderately heavy rains.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 has improved due to public pressure from Communities United For Action, but should be more user-friendly for Hamilton County residents seeking information about projects in their neighborhood and MSD’s effectiveness at alleviating sewer backups and overflows. 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. CUFA is specifically making recommendations for the City of Cincinnati and the Board of Hamilton County Commissioners to:
- Stop government waste and delays for fixing our sewers; and
- Involve ratepayers and impacted communities in decision-making; and
- Systematically incorporate public accountability and transparency mechanisms, such as independent auditing and open public reporting on Project Groundwork and the Sewer Backup Response and Prevention Programs; and
- Develop cohesive, effective stormwater management and responsible development policies; and
- Make our sewer rates affordable and equitable for everyone.
In 2004 the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) was found guilty of violating the federal Clean Water Act of 1972. 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 $3.2 billion (in 2006 dollars) 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. Due to ongoing disputes between the City and County, Federal Court Judge Michael Barrett has 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 will halt in 2020 if the City, County and the USEPA cannot agree to a plan for Phase 2.
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 the planning of Phase 2 for 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 status update to Judge Michael Barrett, 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 and backups 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 sewage overflows and backups..
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. In a February 2019 teleconference with the USEPA, Regional Counsel Gary Prichard told CUFA members that, “[if overflows] are going into yards, those should be eliminated.” 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 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 presented a plan to resolve the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in their watershed in 2012, only to scrap the plan in favor of other projects. MSD told residents they may have to wait another decade or more to resolve the overflows, and the City and County fought during 2019 budget hearings over how to include funding for the project. Minimal progress has been made toward a resolution.
Residents on Muddy Creek in Green Township have experienced repeated sewage backups 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. County Commissioner Todd Portune told CUFA in October 2018 that the county authorized funding for the Muddy Creek properties to be purchased, yet MSD has failed to make offers to residents. And Muddy Creek residents aren’t the only ones in Hamilton County grappling with MSD’s inaction to solve backups and overflows and lack of offer to purchase homes where no resolution of repeated backups has been offered. MSD has previously purchased private property where they could not resolve the issues.
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 recently investigated installing a preventative device, they told the resident they would not due to a sewer main running under her property. They continued to blame 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 the 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.
MSD and the stormwater utilities should work to implement solutions that will allow stormwater to soak into the ground before it reaches combined sewers. Communities United For Action supports green solutions like rain gardens, retention and detention basins, day-lighting streams that have historically been routed into combined sewers, 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 leadership 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 responsible development requirements. When new developments are being considered, Hamilton County and the City of Cincinnati must require that any new development to account for runoff into our watershed and into our sewers. Hamilton County must enact comprehensive guidelines for development to address impermeable surfaces to ensure that these surfaces do not increase the burden on our combined sewers. Our sewers are already overwhelmed with too much stormwater; we need a long-term solution to this problem.
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. Communities United For Action supports County adoption of “Responsible Bidder” contracting practices in their bid requests to ensure that local jobs go to local residents and companies awarded contracts invest in their workforce.
Public Transparency & Oversight
MSD has a long history of mismanaging public resources. A recent state audit uncovered $779,164 in improper payments to contractors between 2009-2015. This money must be repaid to ratepayers and criminal and civil penalties must be pursued for mismanagement of public money. The Director of MSD, Tony Parrot, reportedly “retired” in 2015 after two County Commissioners called for him to be fired. But, during his tenure hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts were awarded without following established City checks and balances. Parrot currently works as the Director of Louisville’s Sewer Department.
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.” Only a fraction of the $779,164 has been recovered from 7 identified vendors, which includes RA consultants - the firm that MSD’s current Deputy Director was hired from.
While MSD has made improvements to its reporting for Project Groundwork, it is resistant to making the information searchable to the public. Meanwhile, they anticipate proposing rate increases beginning in 2020, even while there is no finalized plan for the next phase of sewer fixes for the hardest-hit Hamilton County neighborhoods.
Residents want to know: 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, and any external auditing conducted between 2009-2015 missed critical failures. 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. MSD worked with CUFA to implement a new Project Groundwork dashboard including:
- all Phase 1 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.
In a January 2019 meeting with CUFA, MSD officials committed to making the following improvements to the Project Groundwork dashboard:
- Added ability to search or filter the spreadsheet;
- Add a column for neighborhood;
- Add a column for type of project, e.g. CSO/Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) reduction or elimination, Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), Sewer Main, etc.;
- More descriptive information in the “project status” and “anticipated/actual status” columns about timelines for completion;
- For Project Groundwork map: Consent Decree index number that corresponds to the “Project Groundwork dashboard” added to project description and clarity on the status of the project; and
- Incorporation of Bridge Projects and Phase 2 projects moving forward.
Few of these agreed-upon changes have been made to improve the information available in the dashboard and to make it more user-friendly to the ratepayers funding the projects.
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. In 2017, the City of Cincinnati and Board of County Commissioners proposed to transfer the operation of MSD to the County 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 have paved the way for privatization of MSD and would have excluded ratepayers. While “Citizen Board” sounds great in theory, the proposed board would have created an unaccountable bureaucracy that would further erode real public oversight.
Instead, the City and County need to look beyond their differences to focus on improvements they can make to MSD for the benefit of all ratepayers that they can agree on, many of which are embodied by this Platform.
Sewer Backup Response Program
As part of the consent decree, the federal court mandated the establishment of programs (called the Water In Basement Program in court documents) 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. MSD reports that from 2004-January 2019, only 10% of the complainants received help with cleanup from MSD’s Sewer Backup Response Program, and only 7% of these residents received any payment for property damage.
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 meters 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.
Settlement letters from MSD’s Sewer Backup Response Program tell people that using their basement below the flood line for two years after a settlement may prevent the homeowner from receiving help from them in the future. Residents are misled to think they cannot sue for further 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 MSD’s 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 and removal of the clause requiring reporting within 24 hours from the Consent Decree;
- 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; (Due to pressure from CUFA, MSD instituted this change in 2019.)
- 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.
- Immediate purchase of property when determination is made that sewer backups will not be resolved through Project Groundwork.
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. CUFA won a CAP that will provide a 25% discount on sewer bills for seniors who own their home and meet the income qualifications of the Homestead Exemption in April, 2019. Implementation is expected by July 31, 2019.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, sewer rates have increased 234% since 2000. 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 does not take into consideration the low-income families who either rent or own their homes.
Every month of delay for the expanded 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 the moratorium on shutoffs until a CAP is expanded to help everyone struggling to afford access to water.
Communities United For Action is calling for immediate implementation of a comprehensive Customer Assistance Program, including:
- help for seniors;
- Income-based assistance for homeowners;
- Help for disabled persons;
- 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.
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 that exist to keep MSD from mismanaging public money have failed. The public demands a utility that is responsive to ratepayers concerns, reports to and includes the public in its planning, and is systematically held 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 and maintains our sewer system properly. Victims of sewage backups and overflows cannot afford any more delays to fixing our sewers. MSD should charge affordable, equitable sewer rates now and fix our sewers in the hardest hit neighborhoods first. We need sustainable, long-term solutions that will ensure MSD complies with the Clean Water Act. Oversight must be public and transparent. Operation must be ethical and just.
How you can support the People's Sewer Justice Platform
Communities United For Action is seeking organizational endorsements of the People's Sewer Justice Platform. If you belong to an organization or community group that would like to endorse the platform, sign on here.