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Tom Martin Q&A: What progress is the city making in cleaning up its sewer problems?

New storage tanks will be built on this lot at the Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lexington. They'll be about 77 feet tall and cylindrical.
New storage tanks will be built on this lot at the Town Branch Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lexington. They'll be about 77 feet tall and cylindrical. Herald-Leader

Charles Martin is Director of the Division of Air and Water Quality with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County government. The role includes oversight and management of the city's settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency to bring Lexington into compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. In essence, when it rains hard, our sanitary sewers flow into and mingle with storm sewage. The results have not been pretty.

The city is now well into the process, recently accepting bids for construction of a 44 million gallon stormwater holding tank at the Town Branch wastewater treatment plant. Initial estimated costs for phase one of the project came to $2.32 per gallon. But through a process of "value engineering," Martin's team reduced that projection to $1.18 per gallon. They have received a bid for the project at $0.87 per gallon, which would represent a significant savings. Award of that bid is pending.

Tom Martin (no relation) spoke with Charles Martin about this enormous project in November 2013. Now, one year later, time for an update.

TM: There are deadlines built into the Consent Decree. Was the team that you put together able to keep things moving forward at a fast enough pace to continue to meet them?

CM: Oh, absolutely. We have met every deadline that was imposed by the Consent Decree — either met it or exceeded it.

TM: What unanticipated obstacles have come up, and if you have encountered any, have you addressed them?

CM: The biggest unanticipated one is that the EPA has not yet approved our Remedial Measures Plan. That has been somewhat of a challenge. You know, you like the idea of playing the game without the clock running, but at some point you really have to finish the game, you have to start the clock. So, we've had multiple re-submittals back to them trying to explain what our position is and what our justification is for the time-frame that we have. I think we're close.

TM: Can you briefly refresh us on the CAP plan and bring us up to date on its status?

CM: The CAP plan is the Capacity Assurance Program and what EPA wanted to make sure is that before we allowed new service connections to a system that already has a capacity problem, that we had a plan in place to make sure we had adequate capacity and weren't endangering ourselves in the future. We submitted that plan at the end of 2012. We went live with it in July of 2013. It went along very well. Actually it went so well that EPA approved it by July of this year.

I will try not to be too complicated with the CAP, it is very complicated. But basically, we grandfathered certain parcels that had an approved development plan prior to the CAP. When the economy turned on folks in 2008 and 2009, a lot of folks had infrastructure — pipe and manholes — in the ground, but had to pull back because of the economy. Grandfathering was introduced as a concept to leave people whole, to ensure that they didn't invest a bunch of money and weren't going to be able to actually connect anything when things recovered. The CAP works like a bank. Withdrawals are made by folks like (developers.) Deposits are made by repairs that we or other contractors make that restore capacity that can then be withdrawn by others. At this point in time, the ratio of restored capacity to withdrawing capacity is two to one. So we're doing well. We're able to find repairs that need to be made, we've been very aggressive in our sump pump removal program. We've actually doubled the number of people that are doing sump pump inspections at private property. We contribute up to $3,000 to help folks redirect those sump pumps, and it has been wildly successful.

TM: When we have downpours should certain parts of the city be noticing any difference?

CM: I hope so. Of the 24 pump stations that are listed in the Consent Decree, eight have already undergone corrective action. That has eliminated an estimated 51 million gallons of sewage a year (that had been) getting into streams in Fayette County. I was blown away by it being that big of a number, so I hope that people are noticing it.

TM: Fifty-one million gallons. How does that compare to the overall amount?

CM: It's the vast majority of the pump station overflows that were going on. The South Elkhorn pump station which was one of the early action projects we had off of Bowman's Mill Road was overflowing an average of 36 million gallons a year. We have fixed that and we have not had one overflow at that location since.

TM: One of the more visible SSOs is along Richmond Road across from the new Southland Christian Church, flowing into a reservoir that is owned by Kentucky American Water. When we get a downpour you can drive by there and literally see it happening. What is the status of that?

CM: We have been in ongoing negotiations with various property owners to site a waste water storage tank which would essentially act as a surge control tank to have that overflow go into that location, as opposed to going into the reservoir.

TM: Is there a design in place for a tank along Richmond Road near New Circle Road?

CM: There is a rendering of what that should look like — basically to make it not look like a tank. We realized that is a really challenging location from an aesthetic standpoint as far as the number of cars per day that go by, the neighborhood across the street, just obviously a lot of different reasons. So, there are conceptual drawings in place as we talk with Southland Christian Church who owns that property. They're very aware and very concerned about that.

TM: Another tank will be located in Coldstream Park near the Interstate. And there is an effort being made to use the structure in an artistic way. Can you tell us about that?

CM: Yeah. That one is going to be rough. At 260 feet in diameter, more than twice the size of the one we were just talking about on Richmond Road. Given its proximity to I-75 and to the Legacy Trail, we decided to try something different that we haven't tried before in Division of Water Quality: essentially invite stakeholders, the artist community, the biking community, other people to tell us how we can take an obligation and turn it into an opportunity. The obligation is that we've got to control, you know, wet weather sewage overflows that occur at that location. There is an existing pump station that has been there since the early '90s. It requires the tank to be there. Basically we put this out for various stakeholders to say, here is the canvass, what can you do with that canvass and at what cost that we can turn obligation into an opportunity? So a new thing for me and our group. We're all a bunch of engineers and we can build a big gray concrete thing. And so we're trying to get outside our comfort zone and let other people take a look at this and say this could be something that not only serves that primary purpose, but also becomes an amenity for the community.

We have to have that tank completed by the end of next year so we're on a tight deadline to allow some level of creativity. Everybody has a different definition of what is attractive and what is not.

TM: Tell me what you think we'll be talking about next year.

CM: We expect next year to start seeing these tanks come out. We're going to have a clearer picture of what we really believe the long term cost of this is going to be. I think we're going to have some discussions about rates, I think that's inevitable. Other than that, I think you're just going to see continued success is that I've got a strong team in place that as we talked about earlier, they've demonstrated the ability to be able to get things done. We've met every milestone, we've rung every bell, and I don't expect any of that to change.

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