NORTON: Fading newspaper clips dating back to the early 1970s reported on the lack of sewers in the city.
It was widely known at that time that many septic systems in Norton were pumping raw sewage into open drainage ditches in front of homes, creating unsanitary and unhealthy conditions.
But it was not until early 2009 that city officials learned the severity of septic contamination in the 270-household area known as Nash Heights.
That’s when the Cuyahoga County Health Department released a report based on 2008 tests for the city that determined the scope of the pollution in that neighborhood. The city had contracted with the out-of-county agency to help it deal with new requirements for handling stormwater.
The alarming report — the first time health and environmental experts had looked closely at the Nash Heights septic problem — resulted in new scrutiny and an initiative to install sanitary sewers to replace the neighborhood’s aging and failing septic systems that mostly date to the late 1950s.
“You can find the problem with your nose,” said Ryan Pruett of the Summit County Public Health. “There’s bad water in the ditches. It’s black. There’s a lot of organic matter. There’s often a pungent smell. It’s what we call raw sewage.”
Later testing showed that six of the nine outfalls, or discharge points, from the Norton neighborhood to local waterways were tainted with bacteria and other pollutants.
Summit County’s health board deemed the outfalls public health nuisances. That means the sewage, or effluent, is potentially injurious to personal health and safety.
The neighborhood has “serious pollution levels,” according to a 2013 assessment from the health agency.
State orders installation
Because the problem has not been remediated, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the city to install sanitary sewers in Nash Heights, a project estimated to cost homeowners almost $8 million. That action came after the agency in March 2009, November 2011 and December 2012 cited the city for its stormwater containing high bacteria counts from failing septic systems.
The EPA said the city was in violation of its stormwater permit.
City officials are seeking $11.3 million in low-interest state loans for a three-phase sewer project that must be completed by 2017. Residents would be assessed for $7.8 million; the city would pay $3.5 million for pump stations.
The Norton administration and the city council support sewers, but some residents in the city of 12,000 are concerned about how much they might end up paying to connect.
Issue on ballot Tuesday
An August charter amendment on limiting homeowner costs for Nash Heights sewers failed; a similar issue will appear on a special election ballot Tuesday.
It is rare for the EPA to issue such orders. The Nash Heights case is only the second in Summit County in the past dozen years.
The other mandated sewer project involves Columbine Street in Mogadore and Springfield Township. Construction is to begin in January and be completed by May 2015.
What is happening in Nash Heights is due to a combinations of factors: aging and failing septic systems, small lots that today would not be approved for septic, clay soils and limited inspections.
There is no requirement that septic systems be inspected. Summit County Public Health inspects septic systems only when there are complaints or with a home sale. In 2004, the agency started inspecting the county’s septic systems that discharge to ditches. It took nine years to inspect all 11,000 septic systems once.
Aging septic systems
Experts say most septic systems are effective for 25 to 30 years. The typical system in the Nash Heights neighborhood was constructed in 1959 — when Dwight Eisenhower still occupied the White House.
Permit records and observations show that more than 80 percent of the Nash Heights septic systems are what is known as off-lot discharging systems. Setups of that type use pipes that release liquid to nearby ditches — in Norton’s case, to Hudson Run, Lake Dorothy and streams to the east. Such effluent is often black in color, can smell offensive and can contain bacteria and other pollutants.
High bacteria levels
When the Summit County Health Department conducted tests in Nash Heights in 2012 — a first for the agency — it found bacteria levels from discharges exceeded two state limits.
Fecal coliform levels ranged as high as 240,000 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. The limit is 5,000. E. coli levels tested as high as 2.4 million per 100 milliliters of water. The limit is 576 colonies.
Nash Heights’ E. coli tests were among the highest the EPA has recorded in Northeast Ohio, said EPA spokesman Mike Settles.
Such effluent can make humans and animals sick from exposures, the county and state agencies said.
In 2012 inspections, Summit County found that 18 of 65 home septic systems it tested in Nash Heights no longer were working properly, a 28 percent failure rate.
Problems not isolated
Septic problems are not isolated to Nash Heights. They can be found elsewhere in Norton and Summit County.
Testing by the county health department in 2012 found nuisance-level septic contamination at nine other outfalls to streams in Norton. No action has been taken in connection with that pollution, but sewers could be ordered later, said Bob Hasenyager, head of environmental health for the county.
The health department found 42 other nuisance-level outfalls in 21 local communities and in Metro Parks, Serving Summit County.
On Dec. 31, 2012, the Ohio EPA ordered Norton to prepare a master plan to treat the polluted runoff and eliminate the violations. The city, on Jan. 21, 2013, submitted a five-year plan with 15 sewer projects proposed. The total price tag is $23.4 million, with the city’s share about $16 million.
The city of Norton, the health department and the Ohio EPA met on the Nash Heights problem in March 2012.
As a result of that meeting, the EPA imposed a new restriction on Nash Heights households with discharging septic systems.
Under state rules adopted in 2007, households wanting to replace or make major repairs on septic systems are required to obtain federal National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits from the state.
But the EPA was not in favor of potentially permitting 270 individual pollution sources in Nash Heights, if all the households acquired such permits, especially with sewers planned, Settles said, calling it an administrative nightmare for the agency.
Barberton system superior
He said sending Nash Heights sewage to the Barberton sewer system is far superior to 270 aging and failing septic systems.
That EPA decision effectively eliminated the option of installing replacement discharging off-lot septic systems, although minor septic repairs were still possible.
The best solution, the parties agreed, would be for Nash Heights to hook up to sewers because of the nuisance bacteria levels, the severe limits on possible septic replacements and the proximity to an existing sewer line off Greenwich Road.
After a neighborhood is declared a public health nuisance, all homes within 200 feet of a sewer right-of-way must connect, the county said, and a nearby sewer line is available.
Halting health threat
Connecting to sewers would eliminate up to 7.1 million E. coli colonies per day per household with bad septic systems, and that would halt the health threat to children and pets playing in roadside ditches in Nash Heights, the county said.
The county and the state only stepped in and issued orders to install sewers after community support for sewers in Norton wavered, the agencies said.
Last April, the county health department formally asked the EPA to get involved. The state agency then conducted its own tests in Nash Heights.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.