Lexington is updating the city’s comprehensive plan. It’s a road map for the city’s growth and development that state law requires be updated every five years. There are many issues being considered, including an EPA consent decree, a legal agreement among the city, state, and federal governments to fix problems with Lexington stormwater and sanitary sewer systems by 2026. For many years, heavy rains have meant sanitary sewer overflow, a condition that violates the federal Clean Water Act. Tom Martin talked with the man leading the city’s response to the consent decree, water quality director Charlie Martin.
Q: Where are you in your efforts to comply with this agreement with the EPA?
A: We’re at about 26 percent of the time frame necessary to complete all of the compliance measures. Pencils down Dec. 31, 2026. On the capital end, we’ve got about 35 percent of the projects either done or in the queue. I would say we’re tracking on pace, if not slightly ahead of pace for what is really the largest public works project that the city of Lexington has ever undertaken.
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Q: Let’s talk about some of those capital projects. Probably the most visible would be the system of storage tanks. Where are you with those?
A: We’ve got three tanks actually in service right now: the one at Town Branch, which was the first one; a second, much smaller one is over in the Cardinal Valley Area; and the third one is out there next to the Legacy Trail. A total of nine tanks that will go in. I’ll say we’re 33 percent of the way done with those.
Q: And the function of those tanks?
A: When high flows come due to rain, rather than those locations overflowing as they did in the past, instead they overflow into the tanks, not into the environment or in the creek. They’re stored there until the storm goes away, the flows drop back down, and then we reintroduce them back into the system so they can be treated as they should be.
Q: This is a huge, citywide, almost 600-million-dollar project. How does it influence our thinking as we go into the process of updating the comprehensive plan?
A: I get asked that a lot. The way we put the plan together and got EPA’s approval for it was for full development within the existing urban service area. Back in 2007, when we were negotiating the consent decree, we weren’t in a position to contemplate what might or might not happen as a part of the comp plan update. Our problem is not because we have overflows when it’s not raining and the sun’s out. Our problem is when it’s raining. So, if we want to reclaim capacity and if we want to make capacity available for any changes to the boundary, we need to get some of the water out of the system. That would solve a lot of the problems. You mentioned that this is a 600-million-dollar capital improvement project. You know, our goal is always to deliver the outcome for much less than that. And we’re projecting right now that we’re about $70 million below what we thought would have been.
Q: One concept that’s come out of this is what’s called the Capacity Assurance Program. How does that work?
A: The Capacity Assurance Program is basically a bank account of sewer capacity where, when we fix things or expand the capacity of particular infrastructure, we get to credit some of that capacity we’ve reclaimed and then use it for new development. The idea was that while we work through our problems, we didn’t want to go to a moratorium. No city wants that. That’s a death knell to business. And so, this was the mechanism to be able to allow development to go on, but incrementally make the situation better as we continue to expand and grow.
Q: In talking with various constituencies who have stakes in the planning of the comprehensive plan, one topic that comes up is the urban services boundary and whether to expand it or stick to the status quo. Would expansion of the boundary mean the city would have to spend money to expand sewers into those areas?And whose money? Taxpayers’ or developers’?
A: My perspective would be that it would be borne by the individuals who want to develop in those areas. I think we have sufficient capacity in the existing system to introduce additional flow into it when it’s not raining. And so, if the will of the community is to expand the boundary, that capacity would be available if we got rid of some of that extraneous water. I don’t think that it would require tremendous amounts of infrastructure.
Q: The EPA recently hit the city with a $102,000 fine for 50 or so sanitary sewer overflows that happened in 2014-2015. Is the city’s risk of exposure to that kind of violation gradually diminishing?
A: I think it will always be there. Basically, those are not wet-weather overflows. Those are dry-weather overflows that are due to grease or blockages from grease, or tree roots, or those type of things. What they wanted to make sure is that we had an adequate preventive-maintenance program and that there were penalties if it wasn’t adequate enough to meet their expectations. All cities have this in their consent decree. The difference is that most communities pay the bill and don’t tell anybody about it. We do. We spend over a million dollars a year in preventive maintenance, cleaning of pipes, and that covers about 11 percent of the system. If you were going to try to clean everything all of the time, you would probably spend a whole lot more than what you spent in that fine.
Q: And when you say grease, you’re talking cooking grease.
A: It is a big problem. You know, we’re somewhat of a throwaway society. You don’t think anything of it when you cook up a pound of bacon on Saturday morning and then wash it down the sink. That is a problem. When you pour it down the sink, it’s very nice and liquidy. But when you leave your pans set out for a long period of time, it hardens into this white cake. That white hardened cake ends up in the sewer and it ends up blocking it because it turns into light concrete. We have some concentrated restaurant areas that provide us some challenges, but I think we got most of that under control. Even the residential areas are somewhat of a challenge. And so, we’re constantly cleaning grease out of the system.
Q: So, what should we do with that stuff?
A: We encourage people to put it into cans or jars. That’s what I do at home. I let it cool off and pour it into the jar. It hardens and then I put it out into my waste container and they take it away.
Q: Are any particular areas of the city still having serious overflow problems?
A: South Elkhorn was the worst one that we had, going into the consent decree. It would overflow an average of 36 times a year somewhere in the range of 40 million gallons a year of raw sewage. We have not had an overflow since we fixed that pump station. So, you’re seeing incremental improvement in the wet weather. When you fix one thing, sometimes you’re just moving the problem to other places.
Q: As the comprehensive plan is revisited and updated every five years, will sewage management always be a factor and in particular this consent decree? I’m thinking over the next couple of cycles.
A: I think so. You know, whether it’s the comp plan to expand the urban service boundary or it’s a renewed emphasis to do infill and redevelopment, we’re a 21st-century country. You need to have reliable and compliant waste facilities in order to be able to manage your affairs. We’ve always been pretty good about trying to work very closely with the folks who make these decisions. The question always gets into expense. You alluded to it before. It is an expensive proposition. And so, who is going to pay for it and how are we going to do it?
Tom Martin’s Q&A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader’s Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview. To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-88.9 FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.