Kentucky Sanitation District Reaches Multi-Million Dollar Agreement With Federal Government

At a cost of at least $880 million, the Sanitation District No. 1 of Northern Kentucky agreed to a settlement that calls for the district to make extensive improvements to its sewer systems to eliminate unauthorized overflows of untreated raw sewage and to control overflows of combined sewage and stormwater.

The settlement is contained in a consent decree filed Oct. 7 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky in Covington. The decree represents the combined efforts of both the state of Kentucky and the federal government, which have entered into this settlement as plaintiff and intervening plaintiff, respectively. Each year, the district has been unlawfully discharging untreated sewage and experiencing overflows of combined sewage into the Ohio River and its tributaries in amounts totaling almost a billion gallons.

The major features of the consent decree will require the district to:

  • Propose and implement specific corrective action plans to bring combined sewer overflows (or CSOs, which are overflows of a combination of untreated sewage and stormwater from permitted outfall locations) into compliance with water quality standards.
  • Propose and implement specific corrective action plans to eliminate unauthorized sanitary sewer overflows (or SSOs) of untreated sewage (the worst of such overflows, representing approximately 60 percent of the total, occur at certain pump stations which must be addressed by no later than 2015).
  • Improve its sewer system's management, operation and maintenance (MOM) programs to prevent future overflows.
  • Respond to overflows when they occur.

The district will develop these plans through a "watershed approach" by which the district will identify remedial measures and establish priorities taking into account natural background conditions, other point source discharges and non-point source discharges. The District has four watersheds in its service area and will develop watershed plans for each area. The watershed plans will be updated at least every five years. Use of this watershed approach is expected to lead to improvements in water quality at a quicker pace in critical areas and more efficient and cost-effective solutions. The purpose of the watershed plans is to eliminate the SSOs and to ensure the CSOs meet applicable water quality standards.

"(This) settlement represents a significant commitment by the District to address for the long term its aging sewer systems," said Kelly Johnson, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "Systems like this across our nation have created significant environmental problems. Northern Kentucky should be commended for agreeing to the commitments set forth in the consent decree filed today, which will be bring much needed protection to human health and the environment in this part of the Ohio River basin."

"Sewage overflows are a major problem across the country, and bringing systems into compliance is one of EPA's top enforcement priorities, " said Granta Y. Nakayama, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. "This innovative watershed approach to controlling discharges of raw sewage will have a positive impact on the environment."

Until 1995, the district was responsible for the operation of only two wastewater treatment plants. In 1995, the district became a regional district and acquired the combined sewers, sanitary sewers and treatment systems of 35 municipalities within the boundaries of Boone, Campbell and Kenton Counties. By 1999, the district also had acquired the sanitary sewer systems of Boone County, the city of Alexandria and the city of Independence. In 2003, the district also assumed responsibility for regional stormwater management. The district is now responsible for the operation and maintenance of one major regional wastewater treatment plant, eight minor treatment plants, approximately 1,500 miles of combined and separate sewer lines, approximately 128 pump stations, 15 flood stations, and other sewer and stormwater facilities. The district has plans to construct two additional major regional wastewater treatment plants. The district's sewer systems have often been overwhelmed after rainfall events resulting in discharges of untreated SSOs averaging 82 million gallons annually. Rainfall events also cause CSOs totaling more than 850 million gallons annually. These SSOs and CSOs have adversely affected water quality in the Ohio River and its tributaries, including the Licking River and Banklick Creek.

In addition to the control requirements, the consent decree also requires the district to pay a civil penalty of $476,400 of which $328,200 will be paid to the state of Kentucky and $138,200 will be paid to the federal government. The district also will perform a supplemental environmental project (SEP) at a cost of $311,000 to reduce excess flows into the sewer system from residences and to extend sewer service to areas currently served by defective septic tanks or straight pipes discharging raw sewage. Under Commonwealth supervision, the district will also spend an additional $325,000 for the performance of four state environmental projects involving land conservancy, monitoring of water quality, public education on water quality issues, and watershed restoration.

"We are pleased that EPA and the state of Kentucky collaborated as plaintiffs in this settlement, as was done in the recent resolution of the Louisville MSD matter," said Jimmy Palmer, EPA Region 4 administrator in Atlanta. "This teamwork, and the cooperation the district exemplified by its commitments set forth in the consent decree, mean that valuable resources will be spent on what's important, protecting human health and environment."

The proposed consent decree with the district is subject to a 30 day public comment period and final court approval before becoming effective. A copy of the consent decree is available on the U.S. Department of Justice Web site at

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2005 issue of Environmental Protection.

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