After years of legal wrangling, the tough work of overhauling Lexington's dilapidated sanitary-sewer system begins now.
The Urban County Council's new Environmental Quality Committee was told Tuesday that the city must present a plan to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by Oct. 14 that shows how it will fix the sanitary-sewer systems that generally serve the southwest quadrant of the city.
The information must include a timetable for doing the work and estimated costs, which are expected to be high.
Replacement of many sewer lines is required under the city's consent decree with the EPA, which sued Lexington in 2006, alleging that the city violated the Clean Water Act. The consent decree already has caused a steep increase in sanitary-sewer fees. The council also has approved a water quality fee to repair and upgrade aging storm sewers.
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The southwest section of Lexington was targeted for the first upgrades because "the EPA perceived the problems to be the worst there of any area of town" Charles Martin, director of the city's Division of Water Quality, told the committee.
This section of the city includes the East Hickman, West Hickman and Wolf Run Creek sewer systems, which sprawl from the Versailles Road area to east of Richmond Road in some cases.
Essentially, fixing the problem requires getting storm water out of the sanitary-sewer system so sewer lines and manholes do not overflow and pollute local streams, Martin said.
For example, Martin said a creek was running directly into a sanitary-sewer line in one place. Inspectors also found a car dealership where storm water is drained directly into the sanitary sewer. Plus, there are hundreds of homeowners who have connected sump pumps, which gather ground water from basements, directly into their sanitary-sewer lines.
Some sewer lines have simply worn out, he said.
"Many of these lines date back to the building boom following World War II," Martin said. "They are old, cracked, leaky lines that have reached the end of their life and need to be replaced."
The problems, he said, represent "a very, very severe failure of the sanitary-sewer system. But it doesn't surprise me. It has been this way for a long time."
By April 2012, Lexington must have a remedial plan for the Town Branch and Cane Run sewer sheds that carry sewage away from downtown and the north side. Six months after that, a plan to upgrade sewers in the South Elkhorn and North Elkhorn sewer sheds must be in the hands of the EPA.
All repairs to the sewer system must be completed within 11 to 13 years, Martin said. Failure to meet the deadlines will result in significant daily fines for the city, he said.
"The clock is ticking. We have serious problems to face and we're on a deadline to come up with solutions," Tom Blues, chairman of the Environmental Quality Committee, said after the meeting.
Martin told the committee he would not know how much it might cost to overhaul the sewer system until the city decides exactly what must be fixed.
A local engineering firm, Santec, has been hired to collect sewer data and analyze it.
Tuesday was the first in a series of meetings Martin said he will hold during the next several months to educate people about the problem and seek feedback on "what the community wants to see in terms of remedial measures."
He has meetings set up with the city's Planning Commission, University of Kentucky administrators, Commerce Lexington and the Home Builders Association of Lexington. Martin also asked council members to set up citizen meetings in their districts.
A Web site will be created within the next few weeks to provide more specific information and feedback.
"We have to get the information out there to people about how challenging this will be," Martin said, "because ultimately citizens are the ones who will have to pay for this fix."
Lexington is not alone in facing major costs to repair its sanitary-sewer lines. "I could name a hundred cities going through what we are right now," Martin said, including Louisville, Cincinnati, Nashville and Winchester.