Ask candidates for the Akron City Council this past year about the leading concerns of residents, and the prospect of soaring sewer rates surely would make the list. In July, Mayor Don Plusquellic warned that rates could triple as the city moved to pay for the federally mandated overhaul of its combined sewer system.
During the campaign, council candidates talked about seeking to devise less costly routes to eliminating the 2 billion gallons of untreated waste that flow annually into the Cuyahoga River and other local waterways. On Tuesday, the mayor unveiled just such an option. He did so in the wake of a projection that puts the price of the cleanup at $1.4 billion, or roughly $500 million more than the previous estimate.
The mayor is taking the federal Environmental Protection Agency up on its word. The agency has been talking about something called an Integrated Plan, an approach that would bring greater flexibility, among other things, responding more fully to a community’s capacity to pay for the necessary sewer work. It includes less expensive “green solutions,” such as taking advantage of the natural landscape to curb overflows.
Akron has thrown open its arms, proclaiming: We are ready to participate. The approach holds promise, in part, because it acknowledges what has changed. The federal government no longer helps significantly with the cost of meeting its mandates. At the same time, this new method remains in the formative stage, Akron, if it goes forward, serving as a pilot project of sorts.
Then, there is Judge John Adams of the federal court in Akron, the city seeking, plainly, to make an end-run past the judge. All of this maneuvering would have been unnecessary if the judge had approved the cleanup plan crafted by the city, the federal EPA and the Ohio EPA that has been sitting on his desk for the past two years.
Instead, the judge hired a consultant six months ago to help him navigate the complexities of the agreement. He clearly has lost faith in the three parties. What deserves attention is that the consent decree would reduce the untreated overflows to zero. The judge wants the work completed earlier than the proposed 2027, his eye more on the urban national park in our midst than the ability of many customers to pay. Yet his own tardiness reveals how quickly the years slip by in such environmental battles.
The judge deserves credit for pressing the parties to deliver a better plan. Still, the moment long ago passed for officially setting the cleanup in motion. Now the city has shown its own distrust of the court, seeking the alternative arrangement with the federal EPA. The first step? A study of as yet undermined time.
Will Judge Adams go along? The shame is, this project should be well on its way.