CLEVELAND — An exclusive 5 On Your Side Investigation has found what the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is calling a “history of non-compliance” that could pose an “unacceptable risk” to health and “reliable delivery of safe drinking water."
So far, drinking water for Cleveland and 70 surrounding suburbs served remains safe but the violations underscore the need for continuing infrastructure improvements that Cleveland Water has undertaken over the last two decades.
A review of EPA “Notice of Violation” records over the last four years found eight violations ranging from equipment failures to lab records.
Read all eight notices of violation at the end of this story.
The violations are in stark contrast to testimony delivered before a Cleveland Council Committee in February where Public Utilities Director Robert Davis and Water Commissioner Alex Margevicius described a “successful year” with “zero Ohio EPA treatment technique violations."
Among the most recent violations, a power outage lasted 11 hours at the Baldwin Treatment Plant last November, affecting the de-chlorination process and allowing chlorine to be discharged nearby Doan Brook.
A plant manager admitted he “tried calling the electrician…but couldn’t reach him.”
During the power outage, Baldwin Treatment Plant recorded residual chlorine in violation of Ohio environmental laws and regulations.
As a result this incident, the Ohio EPA requested Cleveland Water to comply with effluent limitations outline in the facilities permit.
According to the EPA:
“Whenever a municipality, industry, or other entity wishes to discharge water to a surface water of the State, they must first obtain a permit from the Ohio EPA Division of Surface Water (DSW). This permit is called a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. NPDES permits regulate wastewater discharges by limiting the quantities of pollutants to be discharged and imposing monitoring requirements and other conditions. The limits and/or requirements in the permit help ensure compliance with Ohio's Water Quality Standards and Federal Regulations, all of which were written to protect public health and the aquatic environment.”
Repeated requests for interviews to explain the violations were turned down, including an effort to question Public Utilities Director Davis who insisted he “would be happy” to speak if we called his office—efforts that failed.
But days before our report was scheduled to air—after still another request for an interview-- Cleveland Water Commissioner Alex Margevicius agreed to a sit-down interview.
“We acknowledge these violations have occurred,” said Margevicius, “but the most important we want to stress is that our water is safe, eminently safe, and has always been safe.”
Margevicius conceded many of the violations occurred because “repairs” were attempted rather than replacing aging equipment.
Regarding the lack of an electrician on duty during a power outage at the Baldwin Plant, Margevicius blamed the Thanksgiving holiday for low staffing levels and said the department is currently looking into solutions that would require revisions of a union contract, overtime and on call employees.
Margevicious also insisted his testimony before a city council committee referencing “zero treatment” violations was not meant to mislead saying the Notice of Violations we found in our investigation are a “lower tier” of violations that are distinct from “treatment violations”.
He also stressed each violation is being fully addressed and remedies are underway.
“If you’re the drinking water public you sort of scratch your head and say—wait a minute—you don’t have an electrician on call?” asked Heid Robertson, Professor of Environmental Law at Cleveland State University.
“Our drinking water is not unsafe,” Robertson adds, but warned, “we have a seriously aging infrastructure, perhaps a dangerously aging infrastructure”.
Cleveland water customers spend 44 cents of every dollar in water bills for infrastructure improvements.
At Baldwin and Nottingham treatment plants, that amounts to $325 million.
In addition, Cleveland Water spends $2 million a year on plant security.
Plus, this year, Cleveland Water will be taking part in a $378,000 spending spree to promote itself through advertising, promotional campaigns and trinkets like toothbrushes and water bottles.
Even so, it could not find an electrician on duty when the power went out at one of its largest plants.
We found what Oho EPA calls “unresolved violations” and a “history of non-compliance” including:
- At Baldwin: Out of service filters
- At Nottingham: Sludge Collection Equipment Failures
But instead of complying with EPA violations, we found Cleveland Water attempted to cut staff at both plants.
Ohio EPA would not allow it, denying the request.
View all eight notices of violation below: