EPA: Lebanon has resolved combined sewer overflow issues

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/18/2022 9:44:22 PM
Modified: 1/18/2022 9:43:19 PM

LEBANON — The city of Lebanon no longer pours untreated waste from combined sewer-stormwater pipes into its rivers, and the Environmental Protection Agency has terminated the binding “consent decree” that forced the city to take urgent steps to address the contamination.

“We were dumping raw sewer into our waterways,” said Shaun Mulholland, Lebanon’s city manager. “It’s against the law, and it’s irresponsible for any government entity to allow that to occur.”

Before the consent decree, Lebanon discharged nearly 14 million gallons of combined sewage and stormwater each year into the same rivers that served as a source of drinking water for communities downstream.

In a combined sewer, the same pipes collect both sewage and stormwater, and rivers serve as safety valves. Heavy storms can overwhelm the system, pushing untreated sewage into nearby rivers. Combined sewer overflows were common throughout New England, and many towns are working to separate their pipes.

In Lebanon, there were 60 to 70 of these overflow events contaminating the Connecticut River, the Mascoma River and the Great Brook each year. Concentrations of E. coli in nearby rivers triggered water quality violations and threatened the health of people who swam, fished and boated in the rivers. High levels of fecal coliform, E. coli and other bacterial and viral pathogens in raw sewage can cause diseases ranging from diarrhea to cholera.

In 1996, the EPA first entered an order with the city that required it to take some first steps towards addressing the contamination. In 2009, the EPA entered the consent decree. The agency instituted a strict timeline that forced the city to eliminate the outflows by November 2020, said an EPA spokesperson. The city needed a one-year extension but was otherwise on time. The United States District Court for the District of New Hampshire terminated the consent decree in November 2021.

Separating about 15 miles of sewage and stormwater pipes cost Lebanon $71 million, a bill that ratepayers and taxpayers will continue to pay off for years to come. The city borrowed much of the money from the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which offers below-market loans at 2% interest. The principal of the city’s total debt stands at $41 million, which grows to $68 million with interest, Mulholland said. The total debt also includes projects at the city’s airport and landfill, said Mulholland, who was unsure what share of the city’s debt is attributable to the CSO project.

“We’ll still be paying for a while, but we’re done,” said Counselor Karen Liot Hill.

Water and sewer rates will continue to rise as the city pays off its debt. Since 2018, there has been an annual increase of 8% for water and 7.2% for sewer rates. Starting in 2024, the city’s approximately 3,300 customers will see a fixed rate increase of 5% each year with an additional increase based on inflation, Mulholland said. The increases also affect Enfield, which sends its sewage to the treatment plant in West Lebanon.

The infrastructure investments have also trickled down to taxes. The city’s portion of Lebanon property taxes is somewhat higher because of the combined sewer overflow project, Liot Hill said.

The city has a “complete street” policy: When it is tearing up the streets for one project, it makes any other needed upgrades. For example, on many streets where it separated pipes, Lebanon also built and repaired sidewalks, added bike lanes, repaved, updated water lines and installed granite curbing.

“If you’re going to do it, do it all at once,” Mulholland.

“There is pay-off for this investment that the city will benefit from well into the future,” Assistant Mayor Clifton Below said.

Had the city acted sooner, federal funds would have covered most of the mandated improvements to Lebanon’s sewer and water pipes. After the Clean Water Act was passed in 1977, the federal government offered to foot the bill if towns volunteered to separate their sewage and stormwater pipes, Liot Hill said. Instead, city counselors chose to wait. They kept sewage and water rates low but put off repairs.

The city did the best it could, Liot Hill said, “but there was no way to undo the original sin of failing to comply with the original mandate and failing to take advantage of federal funding.”

Where it could, the city has taken advantage of grants and loan forgiveness from the state. But Concord’s tight budgeting has limited those options, she said.

The city’s water and sewer systems still need substantial repairs. Many of its pipes are made of clay and cast iron and date from the 1930s.

“They’re falling apart. They’re collapsing. They’re leaking. They need to be addressed,” Mulholland said. “That’s what happens with neglect.”

Improvements beyond the work that fell under the federal consent decree had to be neglected, Liot Hill said.

“Had we been able to keep up with maintenance over the last 20 years we would not have seen as many water main breaks,” she added.

A study last year indicated that Lebanon’s water system needed another $25 million in improvements. Another study on the sewer system is being prepared for 2023.

And while the city’s debt is so high, it is difficult to take on new projects, Below said. Improvements to the town’s fire stations, for example, will have to wait.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at cpotter@vnews.com or 603-727- 3242.

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