Photograph by Steven Higgs

Hartford City resident Corrina Funkhouser has warned her daughter Jade to stay out of the Little Lick Creek, which bisects the Waterworks Park. The Little Lick has been polluted with untreated human waste from combined sewer overflows since Corrina was a girl.

Identifying the most astonishing figure in a folder full of state government documents on Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) in Hartford City is a daunting task.

For example, the East-Central Indiana community of 7,000 has 17 combined-sewage "overflow points" on four small creeks, according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). Only Kokomo and Muncie have more, with 30 and 23, respectively.


First in a series

But, discharge reports from March 2002 indicate that untreated sewage flowed into Little Lick Creek, Moore Prong, Mud Run and Big Lick Creek on 239 occasions in 2001. The combined durations of these releases equaled 58 days of continuous sewage flow a year, 26.75 hours every week.

Still, city, state and federal officials identified Hartford City's CSO pollution as needing remediation 35 years ago.

Today, IDEM ranks Hartford City No. 73 on its priority list for Hoosier communities that must develop plans to address CSO pollution. Some of those plans won't have to be completed for 20 years.

Hartford City's plan isn't due to be finalized until 2009.

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Links to "Indiana Environment Revisited"


Bruno Pigott, IDEM's assistant commissioner for the Office of Water Quality, is no political hack.

Before coming to Indiana to earn a master's degree at IUPUI in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, he worked for the Stanley Foundation in Iowa, where, he said, he worked on a variety of issues, peace and sustainability among them.

Pigott joined IDEM as a staffer during Democrat Frank O'Bannon's tenure and spent five years "in water," as they say inside the agency. Specifically, he worked on the State Revolving Fund, compliance and permit programs.

In 2005, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels named Pigott assistant commissioner in charge of water quality.

During an interview in his Indiana Government Center North corner office, Pigott said CSOs are among IDEM's top water priorities today.

Not a single one of the state's 107 CSO communities has stopped the flow of combined waste into Indiana waterways, he said. Some, like Indianapolis, are making progress, but none have gotten the job done.

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CSOs utilize the same lines to carry liquid household wastes and surface water from rains, snow melts and other sources to wastewater treatment plants, where the water is treated and then released, clean, into rivers, lakes or streams.

By design, combined sewer systems release untreated sewage into nearby waters when sewer flow exceeds the treatment plants' capacities. They're like relief valves.

A 1989 document titled Combined Sewer Overflow: Preliminary Operational Plan, noted that the "Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 and subsequent amendments resulted in a national effort to prevent ... and eliminate water pollution."

The plan was prepared for Hartford City by the Indianapolis firm of Howard, Needles, Taman & Bergendoff: Architects, Engineers, Planners. It said the city began "participating" in 1973 by requesting an EPA grant "to upgrade its municipal wastewater treatment works."

During the intervening three-and-a-half decades, when virtually nothing was done to eliminate combined sewage from Little Lick Creek, Indiana has had 19 years with Republican governors -- Otis Bowen, Robert Orr and Mitch Daniels -- and 16 with Democratics -- Evan Bayh, Frank O'Bannon and Joe Kernan.

CSO success in 2008, in Hartford City or Indianapolis, Pigott said, is measured by CSO communities getting long-term-control plans in place to eventually eliminate their discharges.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Signs posted along the Little Lick Creek by the park warn contact with the water "may present potential health risks for the public."

"It does not mean that they have done everything," he said.

How long a community is given to comply with state laws and regulations on CSOs varies according a variety of factors, including complexity and costs, he said. Some have five years, others up to 20.

"Our goal is to get communities to put in place the mechanisms of a plan to do the improvements," he said. "We know the improvements are going to take time."

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Hartford City native Corrina Funkhouser offered a quick oral history of community awareness about the creeks.

"Our whole life they always said, 'Don't go in the Lick Creek," she said on Memorial Day Weekend as she enjoyed a near-perfect spring day with daughter Jade in the city's Waterworks Park.

The park is situated on the Little Lick Creek, just upstream of the city's wastewater treatment plant. According to the city's Web site, Waterworks "contains our most popular basketball court and two tennis courts. The southern section houses the playground equipment, the restrooms, and a shelter house. The western section has six lighted horse shoe pits and a drinking fountain."

Among IDEM's responsibilities is ensuring that water in Little Lick and other Indiana creeks meets the state's Water Quality Standards, which are supposed to protect public health of Indiana citizens, especially children.

One regulated contaminant, E. coli, is a bacteria whose presence in water indicates untreated human or animal waste. One strain of E. coli can cause severe, bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps when ingested, according to IDEM.

Indiana's Water Quality Standards limit the presence of E. coli to 235 colonies per 100 milliliters. Yet, in the September-October 2000 edition of its Indiana Environment newspaper, IDEM reported that samples taken from the bridge by the Waterworks playground exceeded those standards by more than 100 times -- 24,000 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters, to be precise.

With respect to overall water quality in the state, the same article said "2,660 of the 7,300 stream miles assessed since 1998 are not suitable for recreational, full-body contact due to E. coli contamination. Another 130 miles only partially support recreational full-body contact."


"Our goal is to get communities to put in place the mechanisms of a plan to do the improvements."
- Bruno Pigott, IDEM assistant commissioner


The fence that separates the playground from the Little Lick Creek bears Caution and Warning signs that say: "People who swim in or ingest this water may get ill" and "Personal contact with the waters may present potential health risks for the public."

Funkhouser recalled a recent incident in which a local youth went in the creek.

"We was over there at the drinking fountain last year, and there was a boy that had went down there because there was a bike or something down in there," she said, pointing across the park, "down over there."

Jade confirmed that the boy did go in the water.

"I come here with my kids," Funkhouser said. "I don't just let them go. They're still young. But I know there has to be kids who get down in there, and that can't be good."

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The 1989 Howard plan said Hartford City is a three-square-mile city located upstream from the Mississinewa River and Mississinewa Reservoir.

The city of 7,500, at the time, had six industries employing more than 100 workers and 35 miles of sewer line, most of it CSOs with 8- to 30-inch lines. The combined sewers were built before the mid-50s.

Pigott noted that when Indiana's CSO communities built their systems, they represented state-of-the-art technology.


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Little Lick Creek has 17 combine sewer overflow points that, by design, discharge combined sewage and storm water into the environment.

"They were ultimately designed as the most high-tech methodology for treating wastewater of the time," he said.

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The Howard plan sketched a brief history of Hartford City's CSO issue.

Two years after passage of the "Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972," an engineering study concluded that Hartford City had 18 CSO points and "excessive amounts of groundwater infiltration and storm water inflow," Howard said.

Not only was the city polluting the creeks with CSO discharges, but surface water was filtering through the ground and into the sewer lines through cracks and other openings, further overloading the sewer system.

Based upon that report, a Sewer System Evaluation Survey was conducted and completed in 1977.

"The recommended program was a combination of new sanitary sewer construction, new storm sewer construction and disconnecting downspouts from houses," the Howard report said. "This would correct the problem of excessive inflow/infiltration and combined sewer overflows into the stream."

In September 1978, Jimmy Carter's EPA requested a CSO Study "to address the impact on stream water quality."

Completed in October 1982 by Ronald Reagan's EPA, the study found that CSOs contributed to stream water degradation in Hartford City. But, in terms of "dissolved oxygen levels" during wet weather, "the in-stream concentrations were within acceptable limits specified by the CSO guidelines in effect at that time," Howard reported.

The result: "Based upon the findings and the scope of the study, it was recommended that no corrective action be taken regarding CSOs in the Hartford City sewer system."

Eliminating the excessive infiltration, the EPA study concluded, was not cost-effective.

"Therefore, it was recommended that no sewer rehabilitation be made on the combined system," the Howard report said.

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IDEM issues National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits to wastewater treatment facilities, like Hartford City's. The permits set limits on the number and amounts of chemicals that can be released after treatment into rivers, lakes and streams.

IDEM's file for Hartford City's NPDES permit begins with an Oct. 20, 1997, letter from IDEM's Office of Water Management Assistant Commissioner Matt Reuff informing Mayor Opal Lord that the city's permit had been renewed.

Democrat O'Bannon was governor at that time. The department's name was later changed to Office of Water Quality.

The permit, in effect from Dec. 1, 1997, through Sept. 30, 2002, authorized the city to release water that meets "minimum conditions of being free from substances, materials, floating debris, oil, or scum attributable to municipal, industrial, agricultural and other land use practices, or other discharges."

The permit admonished: "The CSO Operational Plan for the city of Hartford City, which was approved by IDEM in a letter dated Dec. 1, 1993, should (if not already) be expeditiously implemented. However, in no case shall complete implementation exceed one year from the date of state approval."

IDEM issued that directive 11 years ago, or 24 years after Hartford City applied for its first government grant to address CSO discharges.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com. He served as editor of IDEM's Indiana Environment newspaper from 1996-2000.