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Sewers, Terre Haute Backed Up With $130 Million Overhaul

Part one of a two-part series

Ducks scramble on the banks of the Wabash in Terre Haute and jump into the lazy muddy river. Today is a dry, sunny Midwestern day. But when it rains… more than a quarter of an inch… water directly from the city’s sewers pours into the river here at Fairbanks Park and eight other locations in the Terre Haute. This is called combined sewer overflow, or C-S-O.

The sewage never reaches the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The liquid shooting into the river includes chemicals, oil, debris and whatever you flush down your toilet. There are signs at Fairbanks that caution against swimming because of increased levels of bacteria, including E. coli, present in the river.

Fixing the issue will require at least $130 million, or, nearly 150 percent of an entire city budget. And city leaders admit that number could grow. Wastewater Utility Head Mark Thompson says the city has no choice.

“Regardless of who is sitting in this chair, the things we’re doing have to be done. Because they’re mandated by IDEM and the EPA,” Thompson said.

Though the EPA requires these actions, the federal government provides no money to accomplish it.

Fits and Starts

“We have spent millions studying and trying to solve the problem,” said Chuck Ennis, city engineer.

The city even prepared, and paid handsomely for, a report to deal with the issue in 2002.

“They changed the rules. Made them more stringent,” Ennis said.

That report was never reviewed by EPA. And the city essentially began again. Three mayors have already dealt with this issue and, in the grand scheme of things, the city is just getting started trying to solve it. Local economic development head Steve Witt.

“As far as obligations of local government, I can’t think of one that’s larger or of higher magnitude than this,” Witt said.

Aging Sewers Struggle with Modern Habits

Part of the problem is the city’s age. When they were first built, Terre Haute’s sewers were ahead of their time. Problem is, that was during the Civil War. Terre Haute didn’t even build its first treatment plant until the Eisenhower era. After nearly a decade of effort, city leaders say they’ll have a plan to fix the problem. The city was aiming to turn in its report by the beginning of summer, but now they’re aiming for a September deadline with IDEM.

“People don’t want their sewer bills to go crazy,” said Mayor Duke Bennett.

He says sewer rates will climb steadily over the next few decades.  And he and others expect a backlash to the hikes, even though they’re unavoidable. Bennett says the complex nature of the issue means the majority of city residents have no idea what C-S-O means, even though they’ll end up paying more than $130 million to fix it.

“We still have a lot of work to do to make people understand why we have to do it and how it’s going to impact you,” Bennett said.

In the second part of this two part story, we’ll hear about the concerns a local grassroots organization has raised about the city’s plans – and its smell.

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