Sewer separation project will reduce wastewater flowing into Lake Erie

Like many residents, Lorrie Coughlin had no idea her home was sending raw sewage into Lake Erie.

But that’s what her home and about 3,600 others in the lakefront community have been doing for decades because scores of Avon Lake homes built more than 50 years ago had one pipe that handled both sewage and stormwater runoff.

The city has been working with those homeowners for the past five years to eliminate the problem so the community can comply with federal clean water standards and reduce the amount of untreated sewage entering Lake Erie. That work has been part of a bigger citywide $100 million, 20-year program. Affected homeowners were required to run separate pipes from their homes to the street: one to carry sewage and one to carry stormwater.

Coughlin was one of the first to have the work done, helped by a low-interest state loan. The 62-year-old lives on Parkwood Avenue in a house built 66 years ago.

Coughlin said she feels city officials were very helpful throughout the process. They provided her with a list of six contractors. After signing with one of them, Coughlin applied for a $3,500 loan to cover the work. Payments are now taken out of her water bill on a quarterly basis for the next 10 years.

Work on separating the lines took only two days, Coughlin said. The project was complete by the summer of 2017, two years ahead of her June 30, 2019, deadline.

The deadline to separate stormwater discharges from sanitary sewer discharges for people living on the western side of the city was April 30. Fifteen homes had not yet complied by May 1. Of those 15, nine were under contract and just hadn’t gotten the work done yet. The other six had not tried to get a contract and have been taken to criminal court. Some have since complied, but Avon Lake Regional Water could not provide details.

A second deadline of June 30 looms for the rest of the city. The city is now down to 112 homes that have not yet complied, with 75 of them under contract to get work done. This leaves 37 homeowners who still need to contact a contractor and get the necessary work completed, said Robert Munro, chief of utility operations with Avon Lake Regional Water. If they fail to do so by June 30, these homeowners also will be taken to criminal court.

“It was a seamless process,” Coughlin said. “I want people who may not have gotten their work done yet to know there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

The standard method for decades here and in other cities was to combine home sanitary sewers with stormwater into one pipe. But this system was designed to overflow into adjacent waterways, which included Lake Erie, when they were overtaxed, which occurred during heavy rainstorms. So after heavy rains, Lake Erie was fouled with a mix of stormwater and untreated sewage.

Sewer designs were required to change with the federal Clean Water Act, which was adopted in 1972 and regulated pollution flowing into the nation’s waterways. Combining sanitary sewers and storm water sewers was prohibited. Sewage had to go to a treatment plant before it would be discharged into waterways.

More than 3,600 out of 8,600 homes in Avon Lake were built prior to 1972, so their sanitary and stormwater lines were combined and had to be separated.

“The lateral sewer separation project is part of Avon Lake’s long-term control plan to eventually eliminate combined sewer overflows, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Anthony Chenault said. “Under this plan, residents and businesses disconnect their laterals from the sewers and then reconnect them to a separate sanitary sewer line. By doing this, it eliminates potential discharges of raw sewage to the streams and Lake Erie via combined sewer overflows during rain events.”

The state combined funds with a number of departments and put together grants and low-interest loans to help the city pay for the project.

“This is going to reduce millions of gallons of combined sewage from getting into Lake Erie,” said Todd Danielson, chief utilities executive with Avon Lake Regional Water. “We look forward to seeing what that looks like and how the lake improves.”

Once all homes and businesses are in compliance, the city and Avon Lake Regional Water will have a few years to conduct a study to ensure no wastewater is getting into Lake Erie from the sewage lines, Danielson said. If overflows into the lake have not been stopped completely, the Ohio EPA will work with the city to figure out what else needs to be done, he said.

“Please reach out to us with concerns,” Avon Lake Regional Water community outreach specialist Cheryl Arnold said. “If they give our office a call, we are happy to meet with them and with their contractor when they have their appointment to provide reassurance.”

The city has until Dec. 31 to have all sanitary and stormwater lines separated in Avon Lake. Otherwise, the city will be fined daily starting Jan. 1. City officials said they do not know how much these fines would be and the Ohio EPA did not provide a cost.

Contact this reporter at astewart@westlifenews.com or 440-871-5797.

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