In Your Corner: Could Wells County Sewer Dispute Happen Anywhere?

By Ryan Elijah

December 9, 2011 Updated Dec 9, 2011 at 9:47 AM EDT

A complaint filed over twelve years ago continues to divide some residents in Wells County.

In 1999 an odor complaint was filed about the area known as the McKinney Paxson Watershed. Testing determined that E. coli levels were well above standards, leading Indiana's Department of Environmental Management to issue Wells County a formal enforcement action in 2005.

While the ball has moved slowly, 74 county homeowners say they are now looking at being required to connect to a public sewer line at a cost of $1.7 million or $200 per month as an estimate.
We met with a number of homeowners who said they don't have a problem paying, but they're concerned about their voices being heard and the uncertain price tag of the project.

"great frustration that the government that you trusted to provide a solution has created such a tremendous problem to where people are literally leaving our meeting in tears", said Lee VonGunten, a Wells County homeowner since 1979.

Wells County Councilman Phillip Stoller isn't among the 74 homeowners impacted, but is concerned that a non-elected Regional Sewer district board is making a major decision along with IDEM on past testing, feeling it's bad government policy.

Heath Butz, an Environmental Health Specialist with the Wells County Health Department said the last test from 2008 showed the same high levels of E. coli, he also said records show only 9 of the homes have a contained septic system on site.

"we do know that there's a lot of discharging homes out there and visually on inspecting the ditch when I've been out there, I've seen human wastewater", said Butz.

We spoke to IDEM about the concerns in Wells County and they provided us with a lengthy timeline for the project, going all the way back to 1999. They said the testing levels continue to show E. coli levels well above water quality standards, but they also said it's extremely important that the project selected is "economically feasible".
IDEM also said its not advocating a specific plan, instead they're asking the sewer district board a plan and a timeline, they feel their marching orders are clearly defined in the "Clean Water Act".

Glenn Ryan is the president of the Sewer district board, which is made up of appointed volunteers. Last year the board submitted a letter to IDEM stating the project wasn't cost feasible, but they were told to do more research and find grants to lower the cost for homeowners.

"I don't want people to lose their homes, I don't feel like the rates are prohibitive if we can get the grants. We're following the law of the land essentially and the agreed order that the County and Commissioners have agreed to with IDEM", said Glenn Ryan.

The board expects to submit a plan by March 31st to IDEM and says with grants, the monthly cost would $60-70 per month, not including the cost of a sewer hook-up.

However, the homeowners we met with are concerned many won't qualify. Concerns about pollution have played out in a number of Indiana communities and critics feel anyone with a septic system could find themselves in this position.

"if you have a septic system this is a situation that could impact you at some point. All it takes to be on IDEM's radar is for someone to file a complaint", said Stoller.

Residents have lobbied for a new round of testing and those tests are being scheduled, whether the results will slow down this 12-year-process is an entirely different question. The homeowners have decided to acquire legal representation to make sure their rights are protected.

Continue the discussion on this story on Ryan's Facebook page.

Here's the timeline provided to us by IDEM on the issue:

1999 - The Wells County Health Department samples multiple locations of the McKinney and Paxson ditches. Levels of E. coli are well above the water quality standard, which is 235 cfu/100 ml (colony forming units per 100 milliliters)

2001 - IDEM issues a Warning of Noncompliance to the Wells County Commissioners, indicating improperly treated sewage from local septic systems are a major concern.

2002 - A feasibility study is conducted locally to investigate possible solutions. Connecting to the City of Bluffton sewer system is one of the options explored.

2005 - (March 22) IDEM initiates a formal enforcement action, sending a Notice of Violation to the Wells County Commissioners and Wells County Council. http://www.state.in.us/idem/oe/cause/NOV/11499-W.htm

2005 - (September) An Agreed Order is signed. One of the options outlined under Part II Section 3 is for the formation of a Regional Sewer District. http://www.state.in.us/idem/oe/cause/AO/11499-W.htm

2006 - A petition for the formation of a Regional Sewer District (RSD) is submitted to IDEM.

2008 - The county amends the RSD petition to include all unincorporated areas of Wells County

2008 - The Wells County Health Department samples the McKinney and Paxson Ditches again. E. coli levels remain well above the water quality standard.

2009 - (June 3) The Wells County Regional Sewer District is formed.

2011 - (June) The District submits a district plan to IDEM, identifying connection to the Vera Cruz sewer as the selected project. The plan indicates that sewer rates would become extremely high as a result.

2011 - (July 22) IDEM sends a deficiency letter to the District. The submitted plan did not include an implementation schedule for a solution, which is required. The District is told to choose a viable project, and resubmit a complete plan.

2011 - (July 28) IDEM sends a letter to the Wells County Commissioners and Wells County Council. IDEM requests the Commissioners and Council to commit to determining a workable solution to water quality issues. IDEM requests a response in 45 days.

2011 - IDEM receives a response to the July 22/28 letters. The Regional Sewer District requests a six month period to develop a district plan to address water quality standard violations. IDEM approves this request.

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