Sunday, August 15, 1999

Like it or not, Boone County needs a sewage plant

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Finding a place to build a new Northern Kentucky sewer plant stinks. Just ask Jeff Eger and Rick Kennedy.

        They are, respectively, the Sanitation District No. 1 manager and board chairman. They are also the front men in the most recent fight pitting those who have to make the tough decisions about growth — like where to build roads, schools, subdivisions, runways and sewage treatment plants — and those who want no part of it.

        Several weeks ago the sanitation district announced it would build the plant on about 100 acres near the western Boone County community of Belleview Bottoms, and the untreated sewage hit the fan.

        A vocal, organized, focused, determined and media-savvy opposition front formed in the community. The group has taken its case against construction of the plant to reporters; local, state and federal officials; environmental groups; lawyers; and just about anybody who will listen.

        The sanitation district was cast as the bad guy, the faceless government agency that was forcing this unwanted facility on an unwilling community.

        If only it were that simple.

        There are larger issues at work here than just an agency trying to build a plant and a community fighting it.

        “We've got a job to do, and we're trying to do it,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I'm not trying to be politically correct or popular or any thing else. I'm trying to give Northern Kentucky what it needs: a place to treat sewage.”

        Any way you cut it, a plant in Boone County is needed. Kenton County already has one. And Campbell County will get one eventually.

        The Boone Countians involved in this fight as well as others who wish Northern Kentucky's rapid growth would slow down won't like this, but without a new sewage treatment plant the economic expansion this region has enjoyed for three decades will likely run smack into a wall.

        Take a look at Alexandria, where the state has ordered no new tap-ins to the sewer system until that system is upgraded and repaired.

        State officials have told the sanitation district that unless a new plant is built, a moratorium on tap-ins to the system could spread across Northern Kentucky, stunting the region's economic vitality, Mr. Eger said.

        “Life is pretty good in Northern Kentucky right now,” he said. “We've all benefitted from the economic opportunities, the new jobs, the companies coming in, the development and the overall growth.”

        This isn't the time to slow that down and maybe even stop it, he said, but without some relief to the existing sewer system that's a possibility.

        There are also some health concerns.

        Northern Kentucky's existing sewage treatment plant in Villa Hills can't be expanded and is running at capacity, so much so that after heavy rains there are as many 60 spots in the regional sewer system where stormwater mingles with untreated sewage, Mr. Eger explained.

        “That means sewage backs up into people's yards and basements, in creeks and streams, and eventually it all ends up in the Licking and Ohio rivers,” he said.

        “Those people deserve a new plant because they have been putting up with situations like that,” he said. “We're not about wrecking or damaging the environment. We're about cleaning it up and making it safe.”

        The opposition says that the proposed Boone County plant site is just two miles from an elementary school, and that the plant has the potential to harm children.

        But the existing Villa Hills plant is within two miles of three schools, including Villa Madonna Academy, which is a pre-school, elementary school, junior high and high school on the same campus.

        The opposition wants the plant built at the airport, but the airport says it doesn't have the room, and the Federal Aviation Administration, in a letter dated Aug. 2, recommends against construction of a plant on airport property.

        “An airport owner is obligated ... to operate a public airport in a safe manner,” FAA Program Manager Jerry O. Bowers wrote to the Kenton County Airport Board. “The siting of a facility on airport property unless demonstrated otherwise would be a non-compatible use.”

        Some opponents suggest building the plant in Gallatin County, which the sewer district and Gallatin County officials are exploring.

        That would add as much as $15 million to the plant's cost, and the state may not come up with that much extra funding to placate a group that doesn't want it in their community but doesn't mind quite as much if Gallatin County gets stuck with it.

        What it all comes down to is that Belleview doesn't want the plant. “Build it somewhere else, but don't build it here,” is the clear message coming out of western Boone County.

        That sounds pretty simple.

        Unless you're Rick Kennedy or Jeff Eger. And then it's not that easy.

        Patrick Crowley covers Kentucky politics for The Kentucky Enquirer. His column appears Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at 578-5581, or (502) 875-7526 in Frankfort, or by e-mail at