Tom Eblen: With lots of catching up to do, city sewer work will be hard to miss

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 4, 2013 

Tom Eblen

I often say that if our state and federal governments worked as well as Lexington's government does, America would be a lot better off.

Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government is hardly perfect. (Trick-or-treat when?) But the city delivers services efficiently, and our nonpartisan mayor and council members usually seem to care more about the public interest than special interests. Unlike Congress, they're a pretty responsible bunch.

A good example is the consent decree negotiated in 2008 between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the effects of which will soon be hard to miss.

Construction crews will begin this month digging up streets for the first three of more than 80 sewer-improvement projects. The most noticeable early one will be just south of St. Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road, where underground sewer pipes are being replaced with bigger ones.

The work will take at least 10 years. Residents can get more information at Lexingtonky.gov about specific projects and disruptions they will cause.

The total cost of this work could be a half-billion dollars or more, which means sewer fees are sure to rise eventually. Lexington has a lot of catching up to do.

"There's no shortage of stuff to fix out there," said Charles Martin, who as director of the city's Division of Water Quality is overseeing what he says is the biggest capital construction project in Lexington history. "It's a marathon, not a sprint."

Many politicians like to beat up on the EPA, especially because it won't allow coal companies to destroy what is left of Eastern Kentucky's natural landscape for the sake of higher profits and a few short-term jobs.

But when the EPA sued Lexington in 2006, citing decades of chronic water pollution, city officials acted responsibly. Rather than posture and scapegoat, they began working with the EPA to figure out how to fix the problems. They knew that a clean environment was in Lexington's best long-term interest.

Lexington's problem is basically that infrastructure hasn't kept up with growth and development. A lot of rainwater that should have been going into storm sewers is going into sanitary sewers instead. When it rains hard, there are some nasty overflows into basements, streets and streams.

The problems are the result of years of infrastructure neglect, Martin said. The city didn't always require developers to build adequate sewer systems, and many old sewers weren't updated when they should have been. Lexington started treating sewage in 1918, but there was no dedicated fee for sewer-system maintenance until the 1980s.

The city started addressing these problems in a serious way four years ago, replacing inadequate sewer pump stations around town and adding a new one. Fayette County has seven watersheds but only two sewage treatment plans. So a lot of sewage must be pumped all over town.

In addition to installing new sewers, Lexington is trying some creative solutions, such as storage tanks to handle short-term stormwater volume.

Officials also are exploring natural solutions. Environmental engineering has come a long way since the 1950s, when the creeks such as those that flowed through what is now the Zandale neighborhood were rerouted into ugly concrete drainage canals.

These approaches are not without controversy. Julian Campbell, a botanist, and Robert Stauffer, a geochemist and hydrologist, wrote op-ed pieces in the Herald-Leader recently saying that the city's remediation plan for Cane Run Creek between Interstate 75 and Citation Boulevard could do more environmental damage than good.

Campbell and Stauffer raise some good questions. But this is complicated stuff, and the city has some excellent environmental talent on its team, too. Officials must respond to their critiques thoroughly and publicly so residents can have confidence that things are being done right.

In addition to fixing old problems, the consent decree will make sure Lexington doesn't add new development without also adding the sewer infrastructure to handle it. Some people won't like that, but it makes sense.

This whole process will be complicated, expensive and a lot of hassle. But it's the right thing to do, and it will leave Lexington in a better position for future growth and prosperity.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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