Indianapolis rejects sewer improvement scheme

The Indianapolis Department of Public Works has rejected the US EPA's calls for improvements to the city's combined sewer overflow (CSO) system, saying they would be too expensive and would not be worth carrying out.

“The improvements that the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) are requesting would cost up to $2Bn,” said Tim George, deputy director of the city’s Department of Public Works. “Even in the long term, say 15 years, we just don’t think it would be a worthwhile investment.”

But officials at the EPA don’t agree that the cost of the capital improvements would be impossible to meet. “The exact capital improvements that will be necessary are not yet known. The city of Indianapolis has yet to complete its long-term CSO control plan, so we don’t know how much it

will cost,” explained James Fillipini, section chief of Water Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at EPA Region 5.

What Fillipini does know is that CSOs are impairing the water quality of the White River. “We know that faecal coliform and DO standards are not being met. In 1995, there was a fish kill of a half a million fish due to a discharge of CSO.”

The standards that the EPA and IDEM, as co-regulators, are asking the city of Indianapolis to meet are national standards. The national policy on CSO was implemented in 1994 and requires agencies to operate nine minimum CSO controls.

“It is also my understanding that sanitary sewer overflows occur fairly regularly in Indianapolis,” said Fillipini, “and that is something that must be dealt with”.

Fillipini concedes that implementing CSO policy in order to improve the quality of the White River will raise sewer rates. “The community is going to be faced with increased user fees,” he said, “but Indianapolis has one of the lowest user rates in the state”.

Although loans are available for capital improvements such as those necessary in Indianapolis, Kevin DeBell, manager for policy at the Water Environment Federation (WEF), believes that inadequate funding is an issue that will become more pressing as time goes on. “The Indianapolis situation seems characteristic of what we envisage municipalities running into more often,” said DeBell. “The money to finance infrastructure replacement is rising all the time, but the US Federal Government’s commitment to funding is severely reduced. The Clinton Administration has proposed a cut of $550M in wastewater funding for 2000.”

Although DeBell sees privatization as a growing trend in the US water industry, he does not believe that infrastructure improvements will be met primarily through foreign private investment “It won’t be worthwhile for companies to come in and try to make a profit from all our small operations.” WEF advocates a return to some type of federal grants funding.

“Making the environmental improvements that we know how to make may become financially impossible,” said DeBell.

In Indianapolis’ case, Fillipini doesn’t believe the 1994 CSO controls are impossible to meet. “The policy does not intend to bankrupt a community,” he said.

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