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Friday, June 10, 2011

MSD Board Eyes Settlement of Suit Mandating $4.7 Billion of Districtwide Improvements

District to blame if sewer bills double in cost, critic claims.

June 08, 2011 - The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees this week will consider an ordinance approving a consent decree that includes roughly $4.7 billion in sewer district infrastructure improvements and other mandates over the next 23 years.

The board is scheduled to consider the matter when it meets at 5 p.m. today — June 9 — at MSD headquarters, 2350 Market St., St. Louis.

The consent decree would settle a 2007 lawsuit against MSD by the federal government on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Missouri on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources.

Plaintiffs claimed in part that the district was discharging untreated sewage from its collection system through combined sewer overflows and constructed sanitary sewer overflows, a violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Representatives from MSD, the EPA and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, which intervened in the case, "have negotiated the terms and language of the consent decree which would resolve all allegations of the complaints," according to a narrative included in the board's agenda, which also notes that the state has decided it will not sign the decree after "extensive mediation" over nearly four years.

"This is still considered active mediation," said Lance LeComb, MSD's manager of public information. "There is no signed agreement yet. Not all parties have agreed yet. There's not a lot we can share about that consent decree as a whole ... Once we have a signed agreement with the federal government and the Coalition for the Environment, it's filed with a federal judge and at that point the full consent decree becomes a public document and then there's a comment period of either 30 or 60 days before it becomes finalized."

He added, "We wanted to make sure we got an agreement that worked for the ratepayer, their pocketbook, but also protects the environment and the public's health and safety."

Some highlights of the consent decree, as described in the agenda narrative, include:

• MSD must complete projects that will eliminate 50 specific constructed sanitary sewer overflow outfalls by Dec. 31, 2012. The district must also submit by the end of 2013 a plan to remove all constructed sanitary sewer outfalls, sewer bypasses and reduce recurring building backups by Dec. 31, 2033.

• The district must commit $100 million to implement a Green Infrastructure Program to reduce overflow into the Mississippi River and in areas of St. Louis city and county with combined sanitary sewer and stormwater removal.

• MSD must spend $1.6 million to implement a Supplemental Environmental Project in which the district will remove septic tanks and install, replace, rehabilitate or repair sewer lateral lines at homes of low-income residents.

• MSD must pay a $1.2 million civil penalty to the federal government within 30 days of the consent decree's effective date.

The decree comes as the MSD Rate Commission considers a proposal that would implement a series of wastewater rate increases over four years — from fiscal year 2012 through fiscal year 2016 — to fund roughly $1 billion in capital improvements, $634 million in operating costs and $359 million in debt service costs.

District staff presented the proposal last month to the commission, which has up to 165 days to make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees. It is expected to conduct public hearings over the next several months to gather public input on the proposal.

Given the amount of money MSD plans to spend on capital improvements, LeComb said the district has "made no bones about" the fact that rates likely will jump significantly over the next decade or so.

"As an organization, we've been going out talking about how rates will get above $80 a month in today's dollars within 10 to 15 years," he said. "It's going to cause some economic pain in our community. There's no question about that. But we also have to ask ourselves the question: what is the value of a 21st century sewer system? What is the value of getting sewage out of creeks and streams that run behind homes where families live? What is the value in stopping basement backups? What is the value of having sound, functioning infrastructure so you can attract and retain businesses?"

But University City resident Tom Sullivan, a longtime MSD critic, believes the high-dollar capital improvements are the result of the district "continually" violating clean-water standards for many years and neglecting to take action to fix the problem.

"If sewer bills double, there is no doubt MSD is to blame. The sewer district has had decades to stop polluting area rivers and streams, along with billions of dollars of revenue, but has failed to do so," Sullivan stated in a news release, citing media coverage of sewer overflow issues dating back to the mid-'80s.

Sullivan cautioned against providing MSD with additional revenue because, he contended, there is "little oversight" by the Board of Trustees.

LeComb said, "Anybody who would take an honest look at MSD over the last several years will see a fiscal discipline maybe not common in government. We keep our operating budget relatively flat. We always try to keep up with the rate of inflation. We didn't have raises last year. We cut staff in response to the economy. We try to squeeze each and every dollar we can ...''

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