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Sewer District to Spend $4.7 Billion In Pollution Lawsuit If Settles With Feds

Proposed rate hike for customers is linked to lawsuit over St. Louis area sewers and water treatment violations.

Sewer district officials are seriously considering a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Federal government and Missouri agencies over its violations of the Clean Water Act. 

The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District Board of Trustees (MSD) has introduced a measure that would settle a lingering 2007 federal lawsuit against the district for polluting clean water.

The suit alleges the local sewer district discharged untreated sewage from its collection system through combined sewer overflows, and constructed sanitary sewer overflows.

The settlement would cost the sewer district S $4.7 billion in system upgrades over 23 years, and another $2.8 million in penalties.

Subsequently, estimated 64-percent to 155-percent rate hikes on customer bills would result.

The lawsuit alleges the district was in violation of conditions established in the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits issued by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MDNR.)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the MDNR filed the civil action suit claiming the district violated the Clean Water Act.

A consent of decree is the proposed agreement, and is part of mediation efforts that requires the $4.7 billion in improvements to the sanitary and combined collection systems, and to wastewater treatment plants.

The sewer district would also need to come up with a master plan and provide continuous, detailed reporting on all activities spelled out in the decree.

To offset civil penalties, the district would spend $1.6 million to implement a Sewer Connection & Septic Tank Closure Program for low-income residents. The decree also includes a $1.2 million civil penalty to the federal government to be paid within 30 days of the effective date of the document.

Last month, the sewer district proposed a 64 percent rate hike for customers and a $945-million bond issue for the April ballot. It would raise the average homeowner’s monthly sewer bill at the end of four years from $28.73 to $47.05— phasing it in.

The bond issue would help fund a capital improvement plan of slightly over $1 billion, said Lance LeComb, an MSD spokesman. It would also help offset the cost of issuing bonds.

“I can’t comment on the decree because it’s active litigation, but the rate proposal was presented with the mediation of the lawsuit in mind,” Lecomb said. 

The MSD Rate Commission, a 15-member board, is weighing the rate hike and typically makes a recommendation within four months to the sewer district's board of trustees. 

Another option on the table would be to fund capital improvements using cash only—without a bond issue.

Under that proposal, homeowners' bills would see a 155-percent rate hike next year, with no phasing in over four years, as in the case of the bond issue. The average homeowner’s bill would jump from $28.73 to $73.35 a month.

“Those were the bookends we presented to the commission–the highs and lows,” he said. “But there’s a range of options the commission can consider between the bond issue and the cash-only option.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting June 29 at 7:30 a.m. to vote on the consent decree measure. The meeting will be held at the district’s headquarters at 2350 Market St.

MSD is responsible for the interception, collection and treatment of wastewater and the management of stormwater. The district serves about 80 percent of St. Louis County and all of St. Louis City. It operates seven wastewater treatment facilities and treats an average of 330 million gallons of sewage a day.

An earlier version of this story misstated the parties included in the decree/settlement. It also misstated how much of the bond issue would be used to offset bond issue expenses. A corrected version of the story appears above, which also corrects the proposed sewer rate and imprecise wording concerning the makeup of the MSD board.

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