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Summit County wants to move Peninsula to a sewer system. Peninsula residents want transparency

Dave McCallops (right) with Environmental Design Group and Summit County Director of Sanitary Sewer Systems Michael Vinay (left) stand behind a podium while presenting the findings of a preliminary engineering report on Peninsula's septic systems.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
Dave McCallops with Environmental Design Group and Summit County Director of Sanitary Sewer Systems Michael Vinay present the findings of a preliminary engineering report looking into Peninsula's septic systems on Dec. 5, 2023.

Peninsula has two problems according to officials: failing septic systems and a lack of water.

Summit County presented a solution to one of these issues in a joint special village council and planning commission meeting Tuesday night. The county is proposing using $7.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars to build a centralized wastewater management system in the village but not all residents are on board. And they say the county has not been open with them about the costs and effectiveness of other sewage options.

Plans to replace the village's septic systems have long been in the works, with studies dating back to 2004, according to Dave McCallops with Environmental Design Group, the contractor working on the project. More recently, sampling done by the Summit County Public Health Department in 2018 and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency in 2019 found elevated levels of E. Coli were being discharged from storm sewers into the Cuyahoga River, which put Peninsula in violation of the Clean Water Act.

"It didn't indicate as far as what house was failing," Chris Moody with the Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water said. "It just holistically revealed that there's a large problem with unsanitary conditions within the village."

The county's plan is to act quickly on the ARPA money before it goes away, and while officials said they'd love to attack the village's water problem at the same time, they need to jump on this opportunity to at least fix the septic systems.

"Because of the restrictions on the ARPA funding and the time frame in which we must spend them, we are moving forward with the sewer solutions, while we try and negotiate a water solution as well," Summit County Executive Office's Assistant Chief of Staff and Public Information Officer Greta Johnson said.

However, there is still a chance to link solutions to these two issues together, according to Summit County Director of Sanitary Sewer Systems Michael Vinay. The county is working with Akron on its fourth amendment to the United States EPA consent decree the city is currently under. The fourth amendment proposes putting money the EPA originally wanted to go toward a $209 million water treatment plant toward Peninsula's sewage project.

"How it would work is the current $7.5 million that's allocated for the sewer would be shifted over to fund the water distribution," Vinay said.

If Akron doesn't receive approval for the amendment, the ARPA money will still go toward the sewer system, he said.

Environmental Design Group looked at five different locations for a localized wastewater plant, before landing on a location already owned by the village on Locust Street, McCallops said.

"It fits, and it works on publicly owned land,: he said. "We can move forward with it."

Estimates for construction of the new sewer system come in at about $6 million, Vinay said.

"However, if the construction costs come in over the $7.5 million, we have to look at a couple of options," he explained. "One would be property assessments to close that gap or to go out and try and leverage that $7.5 million to find further grant funding to close that funding gap."

But residents are skeptical. They don't buy the need to move to a centralized sewer system without the data to back it up.

"If the county wants the public's support, it should provide a defensible solution," Peninsula resident and Akron City Planner Daniel DeAngelo said. "Show that you have fully pursued other alternatives and describe clearly the advantages, disadvantages and costs to all the solutions."

DeAngelo argued that the village does not know how many septic tanks are failing.

"What is the justification for providing a central sewer system when the extent of the sewage problem is not known?," DeAngelo asked. "The actual number of failing septic systems in the village is unclear."

Summit County Public Health doesn't go door to door to check the quality of septic systems, Water Quality Manager Ali Rogalski said, but the data collected in 2018 and the number of septic tank standard enforcements the agency has to do each year is concerning.

"Since 2018, we have had to perform enforcement on 35 properties in Peninsula, a few each year," she said. "It's never ending. There's always something."

Instead of the county's proposal, some residents are arguing for a decentralized system, one where individual properties would have their own wastewater treatment system before being pumped either aboveground or underground to the Cuyahoga River.

The county argues that a centralized system would fix more than the Clean Water Act violations the village is facing now.

"The decentralized system is about a 20-year fix," Johnson said. "A centralized system is a permanent fix."

This plan is backed by county, environmental and public health officials. It would be very difficult if not impossible to install individual wastewater systems on individual properties as there might not be room on smaller parcels of land, Moody said. He added decentralized wastewater systems also bring noises and smells.

"The decentralized system there is in this situation with this river and the requirements for this river, we don't see that to be a viable and definitely not a less expensive but more expensive [plan] for the village," McCallops added.

But still, residents want to see how county officials made this decision.

"If they could just lay out those options and make a convincing case to all of us, I think we would get behind it," DeAngelo said.

The county defended its decision to only present the one option.

"We did not go into detail on costs for options that were not even considered possible by the Ohio EPA or possible to even be constructed," McCallops said.

Other residents expressed the desire for more time to make the decision and a want to have been more involved in the process.

"There should have been a whole series of meetings that's been happening over the last year and a half," DeAngelo said. "We've been asking for a meeting since last April, a public meeting, a public forum like this, and they've been unwilling to do that."

County officials reassured residents that the decision has not been rushed and the urgency is only to not lose out on ARPA dollars.

"Those ARPA guidelines require the county to commit the funds by the end of 2024," Summit County Executive Office's Chief of Staff Brian Nelsen explained.

Additionally, it's important the village be in compliance with the Ohio EPA's standards, he added.

"The Ohio EPA at some point will get tired of being patient with all of us," Nelsen said, "and they're just going to come in and start issuing orders and start fining the community, residents who are noncompliant."

Now, it's up to the village council to decide whether to request entrance into the Summit County Sewer District, which residents worry will happen without their further input or additional information from the county.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.