Sewer separation project nearly done after years of work

Above is seen sewer separation work outside City Hall this summer as officials announced this week the decade-long project is coming to an end.

OSWEGO — More than 10 years and nearly $60 million after the city of Oswego and environmental regulators reached a settlement to resolve persistent problems with unpermitted sewer overflows, the three-phase sewer separation effort is coming to an end.

The city of Oswego entered into a judicial consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in May 2010 due to what the EPA called “long-standing problems with unpermitted sewer overflows.” Port City officials say the overwhelming majority of the mandated work —which started as early as 2012 — is now complete, and the massive undertaking provides the city with a modern wastewater system that protects public health and the environment.

Federal and state environmental regulators forced the city to separate at least 75 percent of its aging west side sewer and storm water systems, which were previously combined in one system, after years of unpermitted overflows into the Oswego River and Lake Ontario.

Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow described the sewer separation as “an overhaul of most of the west side sewer and storm water system.” Completed in three phases, each representing about 25 percent of the total sewer systems on the city’s west side, the project in total has separated three-quarters of the west side systems.

 “This project brings the city into compliance with federal clean water laws, separates our sewer system from our storm water system and prevents the city from regularly discharging large amounts of sewage into the lake and river,” said Barlow, who oversaw most of the work in recent years, adding the focus of the project was to “drastically limit the number of raw sewage discharges” into local waters.

Barlow said knowing the management and construction is behind the city is “a relief,” and noted the city’s west side would finally have some relative “peace and quiet” from heavy machinery and traffic pattern changes.

Council President Robert Corradino, R-7th Ward, said “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel” as the decade-long project nears its end. Corradino noted it would mark an achievement for the community and the environment as citizens have dealt with many years of construction, not to mention increases in sewer costs, due to the project.

“It’s a great thing that we’re coming close to the end, and won’t have to endure our streets torn up and road detours,” Corradino said. “It’s cause for celebration.”

Post-construction monitoring — set to start in January 2022 — will ultimately determine if the city has more work to do.

Barlow said the city has been wrapping up the third, and potentially final, phase of the construction in recent weeks, but still has a few areas to pave and plant seeds. He said “99.9 percent” of the work is complete, and next year the city would execute “minor” sewer rehabilitation work.

The third phase nearing completion covered the area north to south from roughly West Cayuga Street to West Mohawk Street, and east to west from Water Street to West Seventh Street. Barlow said the theoretical fourth phase, which is not currently mandated, would cover portions of the city’s First Ward, north-south from West Cayuga Street to Lake Ontario and east-west from Water Street to West 6th Street.

Barlow and other city officials noted prior to the start of the third phase the work would be the most difficult as it covered the oldest and densest portions of the city.

Council Vice President Kevin Hill, R-3rd Ward, who represents the area in which most of the recent sewer separation work was done, told The Palladium-Times effective wastewater management and sewer systems play an important role in sanitation and disease prevention. Completion of the consent decree work will be an important milestone for the Port City, Hill said earlier this year, noting the process has underscored the importance of continuous investment in city infrastructure. The substantial completion of the work is “symbolic of a philosophical shift,” Hill said, as under Barlow’s leadership, city officials say they’ve recognized the importance of, and an obligation to invest in and protect, city infrastructure.

The consent decree is a more than 70-page legally binding document that laid out the corrective actions necessary for the city to comply with state and federal clean water regulations. It was issued due to the city’s “discharge of pollutants into navigable waters” that violated state and federal statutes.

Based on the city’s own estimates, approximately 377,740 gallons of combined sewage was discharged into the Oswego River each year from unauthorized overflows in addition to another more than 8 million gallons of sanitary sewage.

The 2010 consent decree, which the mayor characterized as a “long, large-scale, expensive project the city had been putting off for years,” was the result of decades of Port City wastewater issues gone unresolved.

The west side consent decree came just four years after the city paid a civil penalty of $10,000 for violations in the east side system and paid more than $16 million to improve that system to comply with state and federal law.

Signed by former mayor Randy Bateman, the consent decree ultimately was forced on the city. Bateman at the time said the city could have fought the measure in court but would have lost and paid millions of dollars in fines only to have to do the work anyway.

Former mayor Tom Gillen, who inherited the consent decree when taking office and was forced to oversee steep budget increases in part due to the costs of the project, acknowledged the significant economic impact of the sewer separation in conversations with The Palladium-Times, but recognized it as a necessary step in moving the city forward.

Back in 2013, Gillen, then-mayor, said the sewer separation would ultimately make “a modern city out of a very old city,” and protect Lake Ontario and Oswego Harbor, which he called “jewels,” from sewage discharges.

In addition to the sewer separation work, the city also was forced to complete significant upgrades and expansion of the west side wastewater treatment plant, install improved monitoring systems, and rehabilitate other portions of the sewer system to decrease infiltration. The city was also tasked with upgrading an existing combined sewer overflow treatment facility and performing a series of related studies.

The 2010 settlement called for the city to invest nearly $90 million in the west side sewer system to prevent future wastewater discharges into the Oswego River. The wastewater improvements cost almost $30 million less than anticipated, according to figures provided by the city, which detail a total cost so far of about $58.7 million.

Port City officials in January awarded a $6.46 million contract to Marcellus Construction, who handled previous sewer separation work for the city, to complete the third phase of the project. The city had previously hired GHD Consulting Engineers for design and construction administration services for a total of $858,500.

In an effort to alleviate the burden of the project on city taxpayers, officials aggressively pursued state and federal funding to alleviate the costs. They ultimately secured more than $10 million in grant funding since 2016 that brought the total local cost down to $48.6 million.

Corradino credited Barlow with mitigating the cost of the project and finishing ahead of schedule, noting the mayor fought early on in the process for state and federal grant funding the city previously wasn’t eligible to receive.

In addition to the costs, Barlow said the first phase of the sewer separation project “was a disaster,” and the disruption and sewer rate hikes “left a poor taste in everybody’s mouth.” City officials were able to improve on that experience in the second and third phases, Barlow said, and those portions went much more smoothly.

“Overall, I think we’ve turned the term ‘consent decree’ from being a totally disastrous event for this city into a worthwhile, practical project that we needed to do to comply with a mandate and help our environment,” Barlow said in December 2018, noting the city has followed through on its commitments and invested responsibly.

EPA officials declined to provide comment on the city’s progress in recent weeks, but in recent years have continually said the agency is satisfied with the progress the city has made in complying with the consent decree milestones.

The DEC and EPA are slated to monitor the frequency and scope of the city’s discharges in the coming years to determine if the sewer separation work completed thus far brings the city into compliance with state and federal regulations.

“If we reduce the number of discharges enough, we may not have to do the fourth and final phase, but that'll be determined by the EPA and DEC, not the city,” Barlow said.

Initially scheduled for completion by November 2021, the sewer separation work is nearing completion about a year ahead of schedule.

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