Politics & Government

Judge finalizes agreement between Lexington and EPA to overhaul sewers

Ken Newby with Lexington's water quality division, hooked up hoses in front of sewage collection booms at the site of a sewage leak in Vaughan's Branch Creek in the back of Pine Meadows Park on Tazewell Drive in Lexington Monday. Vaughan's Branch is a tributary of Wolf Run Creek where dead crayfish have been reported.
Ken Newby with Lexington's water quality division, hooked up hoses in front of sewage collection booms at the site of a sewage leak in Vaughan's Branch Creek in the back of Pine Meadows Park on Tazewell Drive in Lexington Monday. Vaughan's Branch is a tributary of Wolf Run Creek where dead crayfish have been reported.

A four-year legal battle between Lexington and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially ended Monday when U.S. District Judge Karl Forester signed a settlement that requires the city to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to overhaul the city's sewer system over the next decade.

The settlement, called a consent decree, resolves a lawsuit the EPA filed against the city in November 2006 over long-running problems with the sanitary-sewer and storm-sewer systems that often left sewage flowing out of pump stations and manholes during storms.

The city and the EPA had agreed to the settlement in 2008.

The consent decree called for Lexington to spend $250 million to $300 million over the next decade to repair the storm-sewer and sanitary-sewer systems that have been polluting creeks.

The city also will pay a $425,000 fine levied by the EPA for violating the federal Clean Water Act. The size of the fine was part of the reason it took so long for the agreement to become final. When the public was allowed to comment on the agreement, several people objected to the city paying the EPA that much, arguing that most of that money would be better spent fixing the local problems.

Forester agreed, and, in August 2008, ordered the city and the EPA to renegotiate the fine. The EPA appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which in January 2010 said the fine should be paid.

Over the next 10 years, the city will be required to eliminate all sewage overflows, complete a system-wide assessment of the sewer system and turn the trouble-plagued Blue Sky Wastewater Treatment Plant in southeast Fayette County into a pump station that will move sewage to one of the city's other treatment plants.

The city must also spend at least $30 million to reduce chronic flooding problems in neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, Mayor Jim Gray said he was pleased the consent decree had been signed, signaling the end of the lawsuit.

Even without Forester's signature, the city has been carrying out requirements of the settlement as if it had been approved, said Mark York, spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Quality.

For instance, the Urban County Council approved a storm-water fee and dramatically increased the sanity user fee paid by Lexington residents.

That money was earmarked to pay for $130 million in capital improvement projects, several of which have been completed, including replacing the North Elkhorn and South Elkhorn pump stations and building a new main sewer line for both of those stations, two of the most troublesome of 75 the city operates.

"To my knowledge, a good amount of the legwork had been done in bringing the city into compliance," said Cheryl Taylor, Commissioner of Environmental Quality under Newberry.

She left her city post in March. But on Tuesday, Gray announced the appointment of Taylor as the new Commissioner of Public Works and Environmental Quality. Taylor said after the press conference, "Mayor Newberry always directed us to act as if the consent decree had been enforced. The city should be in really good shape. I'll find out more about the details when I get back into the job."

Attorney Scott White, representing a group of concerned citizens who triggered the original lawsuit in August, 2006, said: "We feel very good about the settlement. We are pleased the court has agreed to enter the consent decree, and we hope the city will comply. We will keep our eyes on them."

The citizens' group sent a letter to the EPA in 2006, citing Lexington's many violations of the Clean Water Act. It said if the agency did not file suit against the city, it was going to. "That prompted the EPA to file a lawsuit, which the citizens group later joined," White said.

In December, the citizens group went back to court, saying that the consent decree had been mandated since March 16, but it had not ben formally approved and signed by Forester. It asked Forester to sign the agreement, which he did Tuesday.

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