December 1, 2005

Group: Lake Erie Gets Sewage Overflows

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At least 8.9 billion gallons of untreated sewage flows yearly into Lake Erie and the rivers that feed it during storms that overwhelm sewer systems - the same as if 2.5 billion toilets flushed simultaneously into the lake, an environmental group reported Wednesday.

Reporting on overflows is inconsistent, so Ohio Public Interest Research Group searched records from the state and 11 communities - even getting one city's total in a phone call - for what it called the first attempt to measure the overflows.

Records weren't available for many smaller municipal systems, so the real amount dumped is likely greater, said Amy Gomberg, who compiled the report. Pollutants and high levels of bacteria from the overflows lead to beach closings and hurt wildlife, she said.

The largest single source is an estimated 5.5 billion gallons from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, serving Cleveland and parts of 59 surrounding communities. However, the district estimated that amount using computer modeling from samples of flows from the system's many pipes, Gomberg said.

State Rep. Scott Oelslager, a Canton Republican, said he plans to introduce a bill early next year to make reporting the amount of spills mandatory. He hopes the knowledge will alarm the public enough to build support for expensive fixes to aging sewer lines.

"It's disgusting if you think about it," he said. "Shouldn't you know where raw sewage is being dumped in the water?"

Many communities in the 1800s combined sewer pipes from buildings with storm drains. During rainstorms and snow melts, the mixed precipitation and sewage is too much to handle, and excess goes straight to rivers and lakes.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency requires communities to report overflow problems and submit plans for correcting them, spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer said. However, she acknowledged the reporting has not been consistent.

The agency does not want to require installing expensive and often inaccurate meters to measure every discharge, she said. "We would rather see communities spending money to fix the problem."


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