An Obama administration focus on Clean Water Act enforcement has produced a flurry of recently announced consent decrees that would mandate sewer-system upgrades at large and small cities around the country. Settlements announced since January 2010 call for more than $7 billion in infrastructure work, spread over many years.

Ignacia Moreno, assistant attorney general for environment and natural resources, said on Jan. 13 that addressing municipal sewer system discharges is an enforcement priority for the Justice Dept. and Environmental Protection Agency. Justice has filed 13 such decrees in federal courts since January 2010, though six have not yet received final court approval. Moreno says there are more to come.

Observers note that such consent decrees are by no means new and that negotiating them can take years. Nathan Gardner-Andrews, National Association of Clean Water Agencies’ general counsel, says the two largest new agreements, with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and city of Kansas City, Mo., have been in the pipeline for years. Negotiations began back in the Bush administration. “I think what we’re seeing is a re-focus on bringing some of those negotiations to fruition that maybe had been lingering,” says Lawrence Jaworski, vice president with Brown and Caldwell.

The recent agreements won’t change much, says Nancy Wheatley, a vice president with engineering consultant CDM. “To us, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a huge change in the problems that our clients are facing... We‘ve been working with our clients on them for a long time.”

Wheatley says consent decrees would be “a better tool, I think, if we had better guidance, better agreement from the regulatory agencies on what compliance means.”

Gardner-Andrews says there is talk that communities are balking at consent decrees that were struck when the economy was stronger. Enforcement will continue, he says, but the “EPA is going to have to be a little bit more realistic about the economic challenges that are facing communities right now and what they can actually afford to accomplish.”

$7.3 Billion Sewage-Cleanup
Consent Decrees 2010-2011
Locality Upgrades' Cost
($ millions)
NE Ohio (Cleveland area) 3,000
Kansas City, Mo. 2,500
DeKalb Co., Ga. 700
Evansville, Ind. 500
Toledo, Ohio (modify 2002 agmt.) 315
Puerto Rico 195
Oswego, NY 87
Williamsport, Pa. 10
City and County of Honolulu NA
New Orleans NA*
Indianapolis -444**
*Reinstatement of 1998 agreement put on hold in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
**Revision of 2006 consent decree, reduces original $1.7-billion, 20-year program cost by $444 million
Source: Dept. of Justice, Environment and Natural Resources Division

This article has been updated 12:00pm January 20, 2011.