State of Illinois, Elmhurst Resident Force Quicker Action from the City on Stormwater Management
City took advantage of Wednesday's heavy rain to collect flow monitoring data and run through emergency procedures.
Mid-week rains seemed to pass through Elmhurst without wreaking havoc, but they were a reminder that the city has a lot of work to do to ease residents' fear and frustration with basement floods and sewer backups. While Elmhurst officials are feeding data to two consultants as part of the creation of a comprehensive stormwater management plan, both the state and one resident want action now.
Alex Arezina has indicated to the city that he plans to file a lawsuit intended to spur quicker action for residents tired of the worry and headache of water in their home or sewage in their back yard. In filing a complaint with the state and in reading documents he received from the city under the Freedom of Information Act, he discovered that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency was one step ahead of him. Earlier this year, the IEPA sent a violation notice to the city after resident complains triggered a review of Elmhurst's flooding records.
The IEPA's violation notice, dated Feb. 4, 2011, reads, “...complaints were received from Elmhurst residents regarding sanitary sewer overflows that occurred on June 23, 2010, following a heavy rainfall of 7.35 inches. A follow-up discussion with Elmhurst revealed that numerous sanitary sewer overflows had occurred in 2009 and 2010, but Elmhurst failed to report these...” The report goes on to reference an unreported sanitary sewer overflow on Dec. 1, 2010.
The notice lists all overflows it was aware of from 2009 and 2010, including incidents on Elm Tree Lane, Berteau Avenue, Madison and York streets, Bryan Street, Fairfield Avenue, Adams Street and Oaklawn. In addition, the letter lists each violation along with actions that it believes may resolve them.
The first, “Overflows from Sanitary Sewers are Expressly Prohibited,” calls for determining the cause of the overflow and submitting a report on proposed corrective measures. “Compliance is expected to be pursued immediately,” the letter states.
Alex Arezina also wants to see immediate action. He lives near East End Park, an area he says “regularly has sanitary and/or storm sewer overflows.” Arezina has sent the city a notice of intent to sue, a first step in what he hopes is a push to get the city to accelerate its schedule for making stormwater and sanitary system improvements. Arezina discovered the state EPA's letter through a FOIA request and because he made an online complaint to the IEPA. Arezina said he wonders why the IEPA didn't look back further than two years for violations.
Maggie Carson, spokesperson for the IEPA, said violations and their resolutions tend to be “site specific.” Each community has its own set of issues, she said, based on the existing infrastructure, regional geology and actions taken by its public works department. However, she adds, a city's history of violations and compliance also is considered. In cases where the “compliance-based enforcement” the IEPA uses is not considered adequate, the agency can refer the violator to the attorney general for enforcement, and that office has the authority to assess fines and penalties as appropriate, Carson said.
At this point, Attorney General Lisa Madigan likely will not get involved because the city sent a response to the IEPA, including a timeline of work to be done. According to Carson, the agency is reviewing this response to determine if their proposal is acceptable.
Elmhurst Water and Wastewater Manager Gary Smith said staff already has started to do some of the work indicated in the letter. For example, in March the city developed a sanitary sewer overflow emergency response plan, which included a flow chart so staff could see clear lines of responsibility in case of an event.
Staff members also now create reports of every sewer backup to track the incident from the first call.
“I want to know what our response time was,” Smith said. “I want to find out not just that it happened but how it happened so we can minimize it in the future.”
Keeping the city's pipes free of large obstructions is another area getting more attention. The city is training staff to step up enforcement of a 1998 ordinance allowing city inspections of businesses, such as restaurants or oil-change services, that have grease traps on the premises. Staff also has mapped all sewers in parkways near trees and noted problem areas on the city's geographic information system map.
The solutions outlined in the city's letter were ideas that Smith, who joined the staff last October, had recommended be implemented.
“These were things we knew we needed to do anyway,” said Smith, who has 25 years of experience with water systems.
Smith said that if the IEPA agrees with the city's remedies, then the letter is considered a “compliance commitment agreement.” Since Smith was hired in October, he was not here for last summer's inspection. But he has met with an IEPA representative and he has every reason to believe the agency will be responding to the city soon.
Rain and Relief
While the city faces questions about its handling of stormwater and sewer systems, this week's rains seemed to cause few problems for residents. Still, the city took advantage of the heavy precipitation Wednesday to collect flow monitoring data for the study currently being conducted by Christopher Burke and RJN, and to run through emergency operations procedures.
Smith says that the latest rainfall, save for a few ComEd outages, was “uneventful for the public,” but the lift station at Saylor and Jackson was working overtime. City staff were there all Wednesday night to monitor flow and be on hand if needed.
“We had control of it,” Smith said.
Arezina said he is happy—but surprised—that there seems to have been no flooding in his part of the city.