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Proposed Tunnel System Would Reduce Columbus Water Pollution

Under pressure from the Ohio EPA, the City of Columbus is planning to build a tunnel system to handle surges in storm water runoff. At present, during heavy rainfall, polluted water empties into the Scioto River untreated. The first phase of construction is scheduled to begin in 2010. The first of several tunnels would be 5.4 miles long. A boring machine would dig underground from downtown to the Jackson Pike Water Treatment Plant. Rick Tilton is a spokesman for the city's public works department.

"This line will go from the Arena District along the east side of the Scioto, will not go under any buildings, will pass under the Scioto River 150 feet down," Tilton says. "Then go down to Jackson Pike."

The system would help store polluted surface water until rainfall subsides and the city's treatment facilities can catch up.

"You have a lot of bacteria getting into the river," says Tilton. "This was accepted practices years ago when the sewer system was built."

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is getting tough on hundreds of cities that have what are called "combined sewer overflows." The city of Milwaukee has been working to meet compliance standards for more than ten years. Rather than dig trenches from the surface, which disrupts traffic, the tunnels were bored using massive machines. It's been controversial, says the Milwaukee Sewer District's Bill Graffin, because tax payers paid part of the billion dollar bill. But he says it's done a lot to keep water cleaner.

"We feel it's been a tremendous investment for this community; it's helped protect water quality," Graffin says. "And more importantly it's kept 68 billion gallons of waste water from polluting Lake Michigan."

Milwaukee's tunnels were funded in part by federal money which is no longer available. In Ohio, The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which is building a storage tunnel in the Cleveland area, has had $28 million in cost overruns. Unless Congress sets aside money in a clean water trust fund, Milwaukee's Bill Graffin says local taxpayers will have to foot the bill themselves.

By today's projections, the first phase of the Columbus project is slated at $231 million. Construction of other tunnels along the Olentangy River and Alum Creek will begin in 2014 and 2025.