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Election 2012: Sewer Vote June 5 Flows from Clean Water Act

St. Louis voters will decide the rate at which their sewer rates rise this summer. Here's a look at the federal law—and lawsuit—that started it all.

Hundreds of sewer overflows in the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) system are at the heart of a Clean Water Act settlement agreement and , according to a primer document compiled by MSD.

In August, MSD reached the settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation, a news release posted to the federal agency's website states. Now, MSD customers are tasked with deciding whether they will pay more now—or later—to fund the $4.7 billion in repair work mandated by the agreement.

Several sources outline the alleged violations and the reasons for the EPA's involvement in the case. The following are questions by Patch paired with quotes from the federal agency's Aug. 4 news release announcing the settlement:

What did MSD do to violate the Clean Water Act, according to the federal government?

"The settlement resolves the claims brought by the United States in a lawsuit filed in June 2007 which the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation later intervened under the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Water Act. In that lawsuit, among other things, the United States alleged that on at least 7,000 occasions between 2001 and 2005, failures in MSD’s sewer system resulted in overflows of raw sewage into residential homes, yards, public parks, streets and playground areas."

So water overflowed the sewer system at certain points in St. Louis. Is that a big deal?

"Overflows pose a significant threat to public health and water quality because raw sewage can have high concentrations of bacteria from fecal contamination, as well as disease-causing pathogens and viruses. These overflows can occur in basements, backyards, city streets, and directly into stream and rivers. This settlement goes a long way in preventing these overflows."

What difference does any of this make to the federal government?

"Today’s settlement is the latest in a series of Clean Water Act settlements that will reduce the discharge of raw sewage and contaminated stormwater into United States’ rivers, streams and lakes. Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of the waters of the United States is one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011 to 2013. The initiative focuses on reducing discharges from sewer overflows by obtaining cities’ commitments to implement timely, affordable solutions to these problems, including the increased use of green infrastructure and other innovative approaches."

Looking ahead

MSD has committed to millions of dollars in upgrades throughout the St. Louis area and will pay a civil penalty of $1.2 million to the federal government as a result of the settlement, the release states.

The rate issue and several charter amendments didn't make it onto the April ballot because MSD required more time, said Lance LeComb, manager of public information for the sewer district. MSD will pay for the election, which is expected to cost between $1 million and $1.2 million.

Election Day is June 5.

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