WIS Investigates: Sewer spills to cost the city millions

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A federal agreement will force the city of Columbia into a large infrastructure project that will cost taxpayers and the city $750 million over 15 years.  

The agreement is an effort to prevent sewage from spilling out of sewer lines into Columbia's rivers, creeks and water supply and ultimately repair the aging system. Part of the problem is the city says it doesn't have a set of sewer standards. As the city has grown, it has created problems and more sewer spills.

WIS visited a city site in March and saw raw sewage bubbling up and spilling into Crane Creek from city sewer lines.

"It is probably one of their worst places for ongoing sewer spills," said Bill Stangler, the Congaree Riverkeeper.

It is a small part of a large problem that now involves a consent order, the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal government.

"It took 50+ years to get where we are," said Bill Davis, a City of Columbia wastewater engineer.

The city is staring down a large number of repairs to the crumbling sewer infrastructure.

"As we begin to develop these projects, you can probably categorize them into major categories, but some of the major categories I would foresee would be the pipeline evaluation, the pipeline rehabilitation and the new pipelines," Davis said. "The new pipelines would be to address capacity issues."

The city touts a reduction in sanitary sewer overflows by 70 percent. Our investigation found the volume of sewage leaking out of the system isn't down at all.

According to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, the city released more sewage during the first five months of this year in 66 spills than in 144 spills for all of 2013. So far this year, the city has released more than a million gallons of sewage.

"It's May, and they've already exceeded that number for this year, so we've seen a lot of sewer spills for this year and high volume ones as well," Stangler said.

The city blames excess storm water for spills, but that was only a sixth of this year's spills. Other reasons for sewer spills includes grease, roots, and age and operator errors.

"That is something we all agree we don't want to see happen," Davis said.

Since 2009, the city has evaluated 15 percent of its system, but with 1,100 miles of sewer lines - the distance from here to Dallas, Texas - it takes time.

"You wouldn't know you lost a brick in a manhole unless you did what, opened it up and looked at it," Davis said.

The city's completed work on four of its five major pump stations, part of more than 50 pump stations overall. The West Columbia pump station is the largest of the city's stations.

"Yesterday, this pump station pumped 8 million gallons, so putting back into perspective of Olympic pools, 600,000 gallons is an Olympic pool. We pumped, what, 12 Olympic sized pools," Davis said.

That station is re-engineered and elevated to the 100-year flood level with a new natural gas generator that can run under water and variable frequency drives that save power.

"If you're starting and stopping in the city limits, you know stop sign, stop sign, stop light," Davis said. "You're starting and stopping that car. You're using a lot more gas."

The city increased sewer rates in July 2012. In a year's time that created an increase of 7 percent or $8.9 million for the city. Customer fees support the water and sewer system, plus some.

Last year, the city had enough left over that they transferred $4.2 million from water and sewer into the general fund, plus used another $2.8 million to fund economic development for the city.

Under the new Bull Street development, the city is committed to fund $9 million in water, sewer and storm water fees, not to mention the costs of improving infrastructure. The city is doing a study right now to determine if customer rates will need to be raised again.

A judge ruled earlier that there's no state law to prevent the city from using those surplus sewer funds elsewhere.

The Congaree Riverkeeper says the work the city's done so far is the easy projects. In the future, the work gets tougher and more expensive.

"We just need to make sure our commitment doesn't wain away after a few months or a few years or a bunch of money gets spent , and we're not all the way there yet," Stangler said.

He's hopeful as the summer starts and the river resources become busy.

"We're going to see thousands of people come out and use these rivers," Stangler said. "They're a tremendous asset to our city and this region, and we need to fix this sewer problem, so we can embrace this treasure that we have right here."

In the next 12 to 18 months, the city will be required to submit for review a number of training, maintenance and management plans to deal with a number of their operations. Davis said the city will require staff to have certifications in their field, giving the city higher-qualified people in hopes of eliminated operator error-related spills.

A judge has yet to sign the EPA consent order to start the clock on the city, but the city is working on improvements. A judge's signature is expected soon.

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