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City makes progress on sewers

It rained fairly often in Lexington in July, with a 2 1/2-inch soaker on the last day of the month. There was a tenth of an inch on Aug. 2.

Then, after 1 1/2 inches fell on Aug. 4, an all-too-familiar problem appeared. Untreated sewage poured out of 26 manholes and 11 pump stations around town. An estimated four million gallons spilled into streets, yards, basements, parks and creeks.

And that, surprisingly, might have been progress.

Comparing summer and winter sewer overflows isn't perfect, because the ground is more saturated in winter. But in December 2007, a similar amount of rain over a similar time overwhelmed 46 manholes and 15 pump stations, sending 16 million gallons into the environment.

The December event was subject of a Herald-Leader article 18 months ago, on the eve of the first public airing of a settlement of a lawsuit filed against the city by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA had charged the city with polluting creeks in violation of the Clean Water Act.

That agreement, a consent decree, called for Lexington to spend $250 million to $300 million over the next dozen years to fix storm and sanitary sewer problems that had built up over decades of neglect.

Among other things, the city must eliminate all sewage overflows and complete a system-wide assessment of the pipes that carry away sewage and rain water.

Charles Martin, director of the city's Division of Water Quality, looked at the recent overflow numbers and said he was "cautiously optimistic."

"I think we're making progress in that we've cleaned the sewers and we've found the low-hanging fruit in some areas," he said.

He also said that the city has a long way to go.

Most of the early progress has meant getting relatively small amounts of storm water out of the sanitary sewer lines. When it rains, water is supposed to flow into a storm sewer, which empties into a creek. Water from bathrooms and kitchens goes into a sanitary sewer, which carries it through a treatment plant before it reaches a creek.

Too often, the untreated sewage pours out of a manhole or pump station before it reaches the treatment plant. That's because rain water gets into the sanitary sewer, overwhelming its capacity. In some cases, the sanitary sewer pipe is broken, and water that soaks into the ground finds its way into the pipe. Or a downspout catching rain water from a roof is connected to a sanitary sewer.

Since the consent decree, the city has contractors in neighborhoods looking for problems. They use a hose and vacuum system to clean out sanitary sewers that might be partially blocked. They run cameras through, looking for leaks, and they sometimes insert a smaller pipe inside a larger one to fix the problem.

They blow smoke into sanitary sewers and watch to see where it comes out. If it seeps out of the ground, that suggests a pipe is broken. If smoke comes out of a downspout, there's an improper connection.

In one case, Martin said, most of the rain that hit the roof of a car dealership near the old Lexington Mall was feeding directly into a sanitary sewer.

Sometimes, sump pumps in basements are sending water into sanitary sewers. The city has a sump pump redirection program that fixes the problem at no cost to the homeowner.

The contractors also look for problems with the manholes themselves. A manhole that was beside a creek years ago might now, because of erosion, be sitting in the creek. When the creek floods, it fills the sewer line.

Ken Cooke, a retired state Division of Water employee who is active in the Friends of Wolf Run, said he has seen numerous people working on and inspecting sewers in his Southland Park neighborhood. And the manhole two doors down from his house, which used to overflow every time there was two inches of rain, hasn't caused trouble in the last year.

"They've done an incredible amount of work," Cooke said. "I hope they will follow up and do some more serious repairs, and that they don't lose their momentum."

There also have been some bigger steps toward meeting the consent decree requirements. Backup power sources have been installed at the city's two wastewater treatment plants. Previously, if there was a power failure at one of the plants, millions of gallons of untreated sewage went into a stream until the power came back on.

One of the worst pump stations, the North Elkhorn, has been replaced. But it still overflows because the pipe that connects to it is often overwhelmed. A new pipe is being laid.

Work has begun on replacing the South Elkhorn Station, another troublemaker.

An overall assessment plan is under way, and it is due to the EPA by year four of the agreement. That could include big-ticket items such as expanding a treatment plant, or replacing a major sewer line.

How and where sewers are improved or added will have a major impact on how the city grows. Encouraging infill development, for example, will mean that improvements might be required downtown and in older parts of town.

Eventually, the city will have a capacity-assurance plan. If a developer wants to build something and the sewers aren't there to handle it, a permit can't be issued.

Residents have seen their bills go up to pay for all of this, with more to come. Sanitary sewer fees have gone up $10 a month for the average household. Starting in January, a new storm water fee begins. It will be $4.32 for single-family homes, duplexes and farm parcels. Everyone else, including stores, factories, school and churches, would pay $4.32 for every 2,500 square feet of roof, driveway, parking lot or other impervious surface.

The consent decree itself, meanwhile, is not yet final.

U.S. District Judge Karl Forester rejected the settlement, ruling that more of the money the city must pay in fines should go toward fixing problems. The EPA appealed that ruling to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The way that turns out is not likely to affect the work the city is required to do, so officials are going ahead as if the decree is in force.

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