Maumee and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency have reached a new deal to finally stop the long-ignored problem of untreated sewage flowing from the city’s system into the Maumee River. City officials and environmental authorities both say they’re looking ahead to plans for a sewage separation project.
But this is not just water under the bridge.
For one thing, beginning in August, every time Maumee residents open their water bills they will see the massive rate hikes that are necessary to finally address the antiquated sewer system that allows untreated sewage to overflow into the river.
That’s a project the city was supposed to have completed in 1996 and since then Maumee was not supposed to have any overflows from its sewer collection system. Instead of fixing the problem, the city just quit noting or reporting sewage overflows for about 25 years.
Since one courageous new employee raised alarms about it last year, Maumee and the Ohio EPA have made a new deal to fix the problem. But Maumee Mayor Richard Carr says decades of staff turnover makes it hard to say exactly who is to blame. He also says he would welcome an investigation, while saying that elected city leaders were also deceived in the debacle.
Welcome or not, an independent investigation is urgently necessary. Law enforcement and regulatory agencies must get to the bottom of how pollution could flow freely into the river for years.
The Ohio EPA’s lack of transparency is at least as troubling. Saying that the agency simply does not know why regulation lapsed for decades is not acceptable and an investigation at the highest levels of that agency is also necessary.
At least one lawmaker from the region, State Rep. Jon Cross (R, Kenton) says he plans to draft legislation to increase penalties and fines for communities that intentionally dump raw sewage into Lake Erie tributaries. He called it “a shot across the bow” to warn any other municipalities that may be polluting waterways to clean up their acts, which seems prudent considering the damage likely done by Maumee’s negligence.
Representatives of big agriculture who have been fighting reasonable and necessary pollution limits for farmers in recent years have leapt upon the scandal, apparently hoping to point fingers at municipal sewage pollution as the real culprit for Lake Erie’s toxic algae woes.
To be sure, Maumee and any other community that lets combined sewage overflows pollute the river must face stiff consequences. Pollution from CSOs is serious and preventable.
But pollution from combined sewage overflows pales in comparison to agricultural runoff that sends algae-feeding phosphorus downstream to the lake. Scientists have estimated about 90 percent of the Maumee River’s pollution comes from such agricultural runoff.
The answer isn’t to blame one pollution source or another. We know that federal and state regulators have to step up and begin regulating all the sources of pollution if we are to have any hope of addressing the toxic algae bloom scourge.