HOUSTON (CN) — Houston city workers face a monumental task, as the city struck a deal with state and federal regulators Tuesday agreeing to spend $2 billion over 15 years to improve its sewage system.
The city also agreed to pay $4.4 million in civil fines for Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code violations, to be shared equally between Texas and the federal government.
With more than 2 million residents making contributions, Houston treats more than 90 billion gallons of wastewater per year, enough to fill the Astrodome twice a day, according to its public works department.
But thousands of times since 2005, the city has released untreated sewage from line breaks in its 6,000 miles of sewage pipes, some of which washed into the Houston Ship Channel, which flows into Galveston Bay, the United States said in a September 2018 federal lawsuit.
Tuesday’s consent decree calls for a 30-day public comment period after which U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein can approve the settlement.
Texas’ largest city, which sits on a flat floodplain, operates 390 lift stations to move sewage to its 39 wastewater treatment plants.
Houston says it has spent nearly $3 billion in upgrades to its sewage treatment infrastructure and replacing pipes, but the settlement will force it to speed up the work to ensure the system can handle its fast-growing population.
The nation’s fourth-most populous city, Houston grew from around 2.1 million residents in 2010 to more than 2.3 million in 2018 and demographers expect its population to surpass Chicago’s by 2025.
Houston workers will start the project by inspecting all the city’s gravity sewer lines and 120,000 manholes. The city says it already has installed 300 “smart manholes,” which contain sensors that measure how much effluent is flowing through pipes, and it will install 3,000 more.
“The city will annually remediate no less than 150 miles of sewer lines based upon the results of the inspection and assessment,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
The city will prioritize repairing 10 wastewater treatment plants which U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors found are contaminated with E. coli bacteria and ammonia.
Grease blockages from people dumping it down kitchen sinks have compromised sewage pipes, and the city will clean these out in the next two years, regulators said.
The project will keep Houston’s public works department busy for 15 years. It’s set to wrap in 2034, when the consent decree ends.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, an attorney in the Justice Department’s environment division, said in a statement that Houston should have made this investment years ago to prevent a health crisis.
“But today’s settlement is a substantial step towards meeting the legal requirements enacted to protect the public from unsanitary conditions, dangerous bacteria and the contagious diseases that pose intolerable risks to the city’s residents and visitors,” he said.
Key to the 157-page consent decree, the public works department said, is that it “resolves alleged past Clean Water Act exceedances since 2005 and avoids costly litigation.”