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Nearly Two Decades On, Louisville Still Contending With Sewage Overflows

Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District has spent nearly a billion dollars and the better part of two decades trying to stem the flow of raw sewage into the city’s waterways.

Despite the substantial investment, the Louisville sewer system, its largest treatment plant and the flood protection system are still in need of critical repairs and improvements. MSD, meanwhile, is $2.6 billion dollars in debt, and limited in its ability to raise rates to pay for the necessary work.  

But MSD has now renegotiated the consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Under the deal, the city’s sewer district is poised to spend hundreds of millions more, expanding the scope and the timeline necessary to fight back the deluge of raw human waste that flows into the city’s waterways when it rains. 

The emphasis is on the word raw because Louisville, like basically everywhere else, is also sending treated sewage into the waterways -- a smaller, but not insignificant, problem of its own.

MSD Executive Director Tony Parrott says the renegotiated consent decree, which still needs court approval, will allow several infrastructure projects to begin years ahead of schedule.

“We’ve been sharing with the community for a few years now about the critical repairs and upgrades that are needed across our system due to aging and outdated infrastructure,” Parrott said in a press release. “By renegotiating our Consent Decree with the federal regulators, we are able to shift financial resources to implement some of our most needed improvement projects much sooner than we would have been able to otherwise.”

Under the revised terms, MSD will upgrade the state’s largest treatment facility, complete the Waterway Protection Tunnel by the end of 2022 and continue to repair old sewer pipes with an eye toward completing the mandated fixes by 2035.  

A Brief History Of Louisville Waterways And Sewage

It used to be much worse. 

Before 1958, Louisville straight piped all its fetid waste into the nearest source of running water. 

We may have had color TV, but cities across the country including Louisville dumped raw sewage into drinking water sources. Anyways, 1958 was the year Louisville built its first treatment plant, the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center.

Fast forward a few decades past the publishing of the first modern book on environmentalism, Silent Spring, and the passage of the Clean Water Act to 2005. 

At that time in Louisville, just one-tenth of an inch of rain was enough water to cause sewage overflows in the oldest part of the system. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency slapped MSD with a federal consent decree that Louisville has been trying to live up to ever since. 

For the last 16 years, MSD has tried to clean up the mess. To date, MSD has managed to reduce the volume of sewer overflows by about 5 billion gallons per year. 

MSD's chief engineer has confirmed that by the end of 2022 it will take about 9/10ths of an inch of rain for the oldest part of the system to experience sewage overflows.  

Everyday, thousands of people drive on downtown Louisville streets over massive, aging sewer interceptors, some of which were built in the years after the Civil War and are lined with bricks.

They weren’t built to deal with the volume of water washing off all Louisville’s cement and asphalt, and even if they were, MSD’s chief of operations says there’s no treatment plant in the world that could handle the volume of water the city sees during large rain events. 

“This problem was 200 years in the making and it takes a while to unwind 200 years of either lack of planning, lack of foresight or bad solutions,” said Brian Bingham, MSD chief operations officer.

In the meantime, other parts of the system, like the Morris Forman Water Quality Treatment Center, have been falling apart. 

Shifting Focus On Failing Pipes

The original consent decree, amended in 2009, was limited in focus, requiring MSD to spend a large amount of its budget to fix sewage overflows. Nature had other plans. Back in 2015, lightning struck Morris Foreman.

“It hit one of the capacitors and exploded and sprayed oil all over everything else so it couldn’t be energized during a heavy rainstorm,” Bingham said. They shut down the plant to the extent they could, but it still flooded. 

Then there was the “catastrophic failure” of the Louisville Green biosolids system a couple years ago, Bingham said. 

That system dried the sewage solids and turned them into fertilizer. Since the failure, MSD has been trucking the solids to landfills. 

“We are taking more to a landfill than we ever would like to and we even brought in a second landfill to go to,” Bingham said. 

Then there’s the aging flood protection system, which has problems of its own, but also intersects with the sewer system. Over in Rubbertown, the city’s industrial corridor, there’s a flood pump station known as Paddy’s Run. And when the Ohio River gets too high, the sewers begin to back up near there, and can’t get the sewage out without the help of the flood pumping station. 

The station is 58 years old, protects around 70,000 homes in the West End and keeps the floodwater from co-mingling with a whole lot of chemicals sitting around the industrial sites on Bell’s Lane. 

Fixes for the pump station and Morris Forman are included in the renegotiated consent decree. It adds up to around $315 million, according to a press release. 

The agreement spells out another $70 million to fix the underground interceptors, like the ones the city just finished repairing under Broadway

On top of that, MSD plans to spend a minimum of $25 million per year in system improvements through 2035. 

Then there’s the Waterway Protection Tunnel that MSD is currently working on and plans to finish next year. That will be a massive $200 million four-mile long tunnel that will collect the city’s sewage during rain storms so Morris Forman can treat it before dumping it into the Ohio River. 

How Does MSD Pay For All Of This?

The bulk of the funding to pay for the repairs since 2005 has come from increasing the rates MSD customers pay. The amount that MSD can raise rates is capped at 7% at any one time due to a Metro Council ordinance.

The EPA mandated Louisville fix its sewers but never ponied up any financial assistance to help, said Johnson, MSD’s chief engineer. 

“There were never alternate funding sources for the consent decree,” he said. 

A few years back, MSD pitched a $4 billion plan to raise money to fix its problems, but Metro Council scrapped the idea. Now, MSD is $2.6 billion dollars in debt, officials said.

Those officials say the renegotiated timeline will allow them to make potential rate increases more affordable for customers, but they don’t yet know how much it’s going to cost.

“We don’t know what the rate increases will be. There’s a lot of factors there including interest rates and what contracts actually come in at, but everything that is planned is expected to be within the authority of the current rate structure,” said Bingham, chief operations officer. 

Climate Change, Equity and Louisville’s Future

As temperatures warm in the coming decades, Louisville will experience more frequent and heavy rains. Warmer temperatures allow the atmosphere to absorb more moisture, and when the rains do happen, they can be more intense, causing flooding

MSD officials say they've modeled weather patterns and don’t see a large difference between what they’re designing and what might be needed under future climate scenarios. Either way, though, their designs were never intended to manage sewage overflows during really big storms.

Bingham says it’s a cost-benefit analysis: What is the best level of protection that the community can afford? 

“You can spend a tremendous amount of money and get almost no additional impact just because some of those storms get so large you can’t build anything big enough to deal with it,” Bingham.

Even after MSD completes all of the projects needed to meet the orders of the consent decree, Bingham anticipates Louisville will still see hundreds of millions of gallons of sewer overflows each year — down from about six billion gallons every year, Bingham said. 

But MSD officials say these projects are worth it regardless of future overflows. That MSD has already reduced fecal coliform concentrations in the Ohio River by 76 percent is a testament to the importance of the work, according to the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission.

Not to mention, the largely black and low-income neighborhoods that are prone to flooding and close to the Morris Forman plant are among those who stand to benefit the most from these improvements, officials said. The planned upgrades should reduce odors and improve flood protection for those communities. 

“What we really want to do is give people an opportunity to have a community that they are proud of, that is healthy and safe,” Bingham said. “We all live in this community. We all want to be a part of it, I plan on being here for as long as I’m left on this earth, but I want it to be better than what I grew up with.”

This story has been updated.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.