Herald Leader, Posted on Sat, Apr. 26, 2003
Why city tolerates an open sewer is real mystery
In what has become a rite of spring, the milky mystery cloud reappeared recently on Town Branch, signaling yet again that Lexington has turned this historic waterway into an open sewer.
Best guess, based on the titanium dioxide traces in the earlier slugs, is that the pollutant is latex paint.
City environmental engineer David Gabbard speculates that someone is cleaning paint buckets and brushes in an old mop sink or drain that was illegally connected to the storm sewers, probably years ago.
But illegal storm sewer connections are not the only way that raw sewage enters Town Branch.
The sanitary sewers also overflow into the creek. The main suspect is an overloaded underground system that serves the University of Kentucky, Ashland Park and Chevy Chase.
The overflows are a remnant of when municipal drainage systems were engineered to dump untreated sewage into storm sewers and streams during rains to prevent backups in houses.
Sewage overflows were installed along the 3-mile line in 1963. The sewer overflows and storm water go into an underground creek, buried about 100 years ago, that empties into Town Branch at Manchester Street.
Nowadays, heavy rain may not be required for the sewers to overflow. High fecal counts have been measured in Town Branch after dry spells. The city’s planning, environmental management and sanitary sewer divisions are investigating to pinpoint the problem’s sources and solutions.
Whatever the causes, the pollution of Town Branch with raw sewage is gross. It’s no less disgusting than the reviled mountain straight pipes. It’s also a violation of the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlawed intentional sewer overflows in the 1980s.
Ending the sewage spills is on the city’s three-year, $23 million sewer improvement plan. But this upgrade is last on the list, behind projects that would relieve sewage backups in basements, yards and parks.
It’s hard to believe that in 2003 Lexington tolerates an open sewer just west of downtown. But the proof is there, in the mystery cloud that appears each spring to remind us of our environmental sins.