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Federal judge approves MSD consent decree

(courtesy of Ted Heisel/Missouri Coalition for the Environment)
A federal judge has approved a consent decree that requires the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District to spend almost $5 billion on removing illegal sewer bypasses, like the one pictured here.

Updated at 5:45 with statement from the Attorney General's office.

Updated at 2:00 with comments from MSD, Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

A federal judge in Missouri has given her approval to a consent decree that requires the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District to make billions of dollars in improvements to settle Clean Water Act violations.

In an opinion issued late Friday, Judge Carol E. Jackson called the settlement between MSD, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment "procedurally fair." It settles a lawsuit filed in 2007 over illegal discharges MSD is making into local creeks and streams.

"This is a real fact. This is something that is happening just as it has happened in dozens of cities across the US," said MSD spokesman Lance LeComb.

LeComb says in the short-term, the agency will pay a $1.2 million fine to the federal government and begin programs to help low-income families replace their septic tanks. But he says the decree doesn't alter MSD's long-term plans.

"As far as the projects, the major work, a lot of the work to address the overflows themselves, that's all been in the planning stages for several years now, and that continues as laid out," he said.  Design and engineering contracts for one part - a nine-mile long, 24-foot-wide tunnel under the River Des Peres  - were opened for bidding several months ago, and the first shovels for the tunnel could be in the ground in two years.

The Missouri Coalition for the Environment filed the original 2007 lawsuit, and fought hard to remain at the table after the EPA intervened, said Coalition executive director Kathleen Logan Smith - an effort that was ultimately successful.

"We'll be at the table, so it's not just EPA and MSD making deals behind closed doors," she said. "And our bottom line is about the community and the environment, so we don't have any other kind of dog in this fight."

The state, which was also a party to the suit, chose not to sign the consent decree. In an e-mailed statement, Nanci Gonder a spokeswoman for attorney general Chris Koster, said that while the state was unable to reach agreement on unspecified issues with MSD, it did not oppose Judge Jackson's approval of the decree because it "addresses critical environmental issues that require immediate action on the part of MSD." The statement continues, "further litigation on the matter may interfere with the implementation of the consent decree." 

The repairs will cost MSD $4.7 billion over 23 years. An election to issue $945 million in bonds is scheduled for June 5.

"Either a no vote or a yes vote is a valid option," LeComb said. "If we use bonds, rates will still increase, but they won't increase as much. If we don't use bonds, rates will go up faster - on July 1 there would be a very sudden increase - but the amount of interest that we pay overall would be much less."

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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