Ohio EPA: Washington County’s efforts on Devola sewer stink

MARIETTA — The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has accused the Washington County Commissioners of stalling the sewer project work in Devola.

The commission last year authorized WSP USA Inc. to submit on its behalf a plan for installing a sewer system for 550 homes in the east Muskingum Township community.

Commissioners are under court order to comply with the Ohio EPA to install sewers in Devola following many years of debate over the pollution of surface water by failing and aged septic systems in the township.

“Devola Sanitary Sewer Improvements General Plan” was submitted by Washington County to the Ohio EPA last November, following the letter of a Nov. 29, 2018, court order from Judge Linton Lewis.

According to the Ohio EPA’s compliance and enforcement officer for the division of surface water, what was submitted was not enough.

“The Washington County Commissioners submitted a document which is more akin to a general plan outline versus an approvable general plan and failed to follow the spirit of the judges’ order, only delaying the mitigation of the problem and protection of the Devola citizens’ public health,” wrote Marco Deshaies, section manager for the region’s compliance office.

Deshaies listed four concerns with the plan that was submitted to the Ohio EPA, saying that a general plan “should include the location where the sewer (mains) are to be located” and follow the final findings and orders’ requirement to complete the project in no longer than two years.

“The plan submitted in November contains a three-year schedule to complete the construction,” Deshaies said. “This timeframe appears to be due, in part, to two public meetings scheduled months apart as well as a draft and final design as much as six months apart with a final design not slated until Dec. 2020.”

Washington County Prosecutor Nicole Coil said she and her clients (the current county commissioners Ron Feathers, David White and Kevin Ritter) were disappointed with the criticism.

“It was disappointing because I think that there wasn’t a good reflection of the progress which has been made,” said Coil. “The signaling from the (Ohio) EPA had been that they had been pleased with the progress to that point. The letter also did not reflect the cooperative discussions which have been going on between the technical staff and WSP. And the individuals who have been involved in (those) discussions had not been copied in the letter from the Ohio EPA’s office.”

WSP USA Inc. is the design firm for the county to produce plans for the sewers in Devola.

“My understanding of what happens going forward is that (outside legal counsel through Bricker and Eckler and WSP) are going to draft an updated response to the Ohio EPA, which would reflect the significant progress which had been going on during the month of January,” said Coil. “So based upon Bricker and Eckler counsel’s conversations with the attorney at the EPA… I think they are optimistic that we will be back on track.”

Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram said the city also is monitoring the state’s case against the commissioners in anticipation of the city/county lawsuit trial scheduled for July.

“It tangentially affects us (because) the order they have is to sewer,” said Bertram, noting the 40-year contract, which is the crux of the city lawsuit claims the commissioners have broken contract law to tie into the city sewer system. “Right now, we’re in the discovery process and filing motions and responses. There are status conferences and a final pretrial hearing scheduled in June and our trial scheduled for July 13-24.”

Bertram said the city has also received a copy of the Ohio EPA’s letter for its records.

“The court issued (Washington County) a ruling and the OEPA and court gave them a timeframe. The letter speaks for itself and asks some very pointed questions,” he said.

If the response filed by the county this week does not answer those, Bertram said the question remains whether the county commissioners could be the defendants in a subsequent contempt of court action that could be filed by the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Attorney General.

Janelle Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@mariettatimes.com.