This report is the second in a four-part series exploring water issues in southeast Ohio. The series is a collaboration among The Athens NEWS, The Athens Messenger, The Logan Daily News and The Vinton-Jackson Courier.
When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine visited Vinton County in March 2021, commissioners told him about Garrett Ridge, a community plagued by water problems — including no access to public water and residents reporting discolored tap water from their private sources.
“We want to help you with that,” Dewine said. “We’re going to help you.”
Garrett Ridge is one of many southeast Ohio communities that compete for any money they can find to fix their outdated, failing or nonexistent water infrastructure.
However, in a recent program to fund water and sewer projects across the state — Garrett Ridge, like many others, got hung out to dry.
Mark Fout, president of the Vinton County Commissioners, said that despite working with State Reps. Jay Edwards, R-Nelsonville, and Jason Stephens, R-Kitts Hill, to get assistance from the state on additional water projects in Vinton County, the trio has come up mostly empty-handed.
“I understand that Cleveland and Columbus — all the “Big C’s” — are top of the list, but in my own opinion, we in Vinton County are just as good a people as they are in all the Big C’s,” Fout said.
“I just feel like we were overlooked in a dire situation.”
The American Rescue Plan Act, passed in Feb. 2021, allocated $350 billion for state and local recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, including $195 billion for state and local governments and $10 billion specifically for capital improvement projects. The state of Ohio received $5.37 billion from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund and $268.58 million from the Capital Projects Fund.
Ohio House Bill 168, sponsored by Ohio Reps. Mark Fraizer, R-Newark, and Mike Loychik, R-Bazetta, allocates Ohio’s ARPA funds for what the governor dubbed “Broadband, Utilities, and Infrastructure for Local Development Success,” or BUILDS.
The bill, which took effect June 29, dedicated $250 million in ARPA funds to water and wastewater infrastructure improvements. It directed the Ohio Department of Development to “establish and administer the Water and Sewer Quality Program to provide grants to political subdivisions related to water and sewer quality projects.”
The bill gave county engineers 60 days to “submit a list of projects within the county that are eligible to receive funding under the program. The list shall indicate the priority level of each project, in comparison to the other projects on the list.”
The state’s scoring system lists 10 criteria with points ranging from eight to 20 for a maximum score of 100 points:
- Up to 20 points for providing different types of documentation about the project and engineering reports.
- Up to 5 points for projects finding themselves within the top 10 of the engineer’s priority list (descending from five points awarded to the first and second priority projects).
- 5 points if projects had matching funds or other sources of funding to complete the project.
- 8 points if the community was below the state’s average median income.
- 8 points if it was above the state’s average unemployment rate.
- 8 points if it was above the state’s average water or sewage fees.
- Up to 10 points for achieving environmental compliance.
- Up to 12 points can be awarded for addressing public health concerns stemming from water or sewer issues.
- Up to 9 points for different degrees of regionalization or expanding to other communities. Projects with three to four degrees of connection received nine points.
- 15 points for expanding access to public water or sewer.
A copy of the scoring system was provided to The Vinton-Jackson Courier by the Jackson County government; The Athens NEWS repeatedly attempted to contact the Ohio Department of Development, which said its response was forthcoming.
Athens County Engineer Jeff Maiden said he spent 60 to 70 hours scoring the 23 county’s projects, largely following the state’s parameters but with a tweak to favor projects based on the “severity or consequences” of not receiving funding, and slightly prioritizing water.
Maiden asked that all applicants complete the modified form and scored them all based on how they completed that form, and after reviewing each project. He said he only had around a week to read, review and score all of these projects.
He pointed to a series of different balances he must maintain for fairness: water or sewer, people served versus expanded access, repair or replace systems with deferred maintenance?
“All the projects are critical — how do you rank them?” Maiden said. “They all need done — all that work needs done. It’s been neglected for 30 years, so the reality is I’m happy to see anything.”
In late October, Gov. Mike DeWine announced $93 million in initial BUILDS water and wastewater grants for 54 projects in 60 of Ohio’s 88 counties. A few weeks later, the governor announced an additional $44 million in projects for the remaining 28 counties. The state made the third and final round of grants public Dec. 7. Every county received at least two grants.
The wave of grant funding is also a part of DeWine’s broader H2Ohio initiative to address serious water issues in the state. When the first grants were announced, DeWine said the money could be transformative for some regions of the state.
"It's astonishing to me that there are communities in Ohio today where it's difficult to get clean water,” DeWine said in a statement.
State Rep. Brian Stewart, R-Asheville, said the legislature wanted to use ARPA money to benefit communities throughout the state.
“We had a very strong belief that we wanted to see this money put to tangible use and coming from local government myself, I know this is a huge need,” said Stewart, a former Pickaway County commissioner. “We’ve got aging infrastructure in the water and sewer space throughout a lot of southern Ohio. These are projects that were put in a very long time ago, and they’re very costly to maintain.”
DeWine said in a release that funding will be “life-changing in some communities.” But the state would need to spend almost three-fourths of the BUILDS funding to address water and wastewater infrastructure needs just in southeast Ohio, according to a Buckeye Hills analysis of eight counties' needs. That’s why Jack Frech, longtime anti-poverty advocate and retired Athens County Jobs and Family Services director, believes that the grants are unlikely to have a major impact here.
“The kind of money they're talking about here is not going to cause a massive change,” Frech said.
An uneven score
Chauncey, Nelsonville and Athens ranked one, two and three on Maiden’s list. Three county projects received funding — but none were for Chauncey, Nelsonville or Athens.
Although all projects on the list were needed, Maiden said he was somewhat “disappointed” that higher-priority projects were not selected in the current waves of funding. The region’s and county’s water needs are greater than in any other part of the state, he said — including some areas that received substantially more funding for projects than Athens County.
“As a southeastern Ohio resident — been here most of my life — our needs are overwhelming,” Maiden said in an interview before the third wave of funding.
Nelsonville City Manager Scott Frank is frustrated that his city's project was not selected — or more importantly, he said — that the highest priority project, Chauncey, did not receive funding either.
“I'm not even going to talk about our problems — Chauncey, man — they literally have s*** in the street,” Frank said.
Chauncey needs $5 million to replace its failed sewer system, which uses the original clay tile line system that is costly to replace and maintain. Maiden, in an email to other officials about the priority rankings, said that the “failed status of Chauncey’s sewer system is legendary.”
Chauncey Mayor Amy Renner said the cost of constantly replacing the sewer lines was jeopardizing the finances of the village.
The $1 million the village had requested could have been “the catalyst that Chauncey needs to be able to get this project moving” and support potential development associated with the Bailey’s Trail Project, Maiden wrote in an email.
Renner said the priority number one ranking from the county increased the village’s confidence they could secure the funding.
“I was feeling really optimistic we were going to get chosen — it definitely got our hopes up,” Renner said.
Nelsonville’s project would replace a failed water main that travels under the Hocking River and serves 3,000 people. It’s one of two mains; if the intact line fails — especially the section under the Hocking River — Nelsonville and Buchtel could be without water for an extended period, Maiden said.
The state of the Nelsonville line was “completely unacceptable and potentially makes this project the most important of all projects submitted,” Maiden said in an email to other officials.
Frank was “kind of dumbfounded at this point” by what he said was the state’s apparent lack of interest in major Athens County infrastructure projects. Redeveloping water infrastructure is critical to the region’s future, he said.
“It's the only way for economic development — if we don't have the basic infrastructure for it, there’s no way to grow,” Frank said.
Some southeast Ohio communities did win funding for their most pressing projects. Hocking County Engineer Doug Dillon had three projects on his list. At the top was Laurelville’s wastewater treatment plant.
“The village is under an EPA mandate because they’re not in compliance with the EPA in (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) limits — and that’s the Clean Water Act,” Dillon said.
Laurelville Mayor Mitchell “Brent” Ebert said the plant was originally to begin upgrades last year; however, the pandemic delayed the process and increased costs, he said.
“We had enough money to do it, and then this COVID came up,” Ebert said. “All the prices went up, and we fell more than a million dollars short.”
Bringing Laurelville’s wastewater treatment plant into full compliance would cost an estimated $3.35 million, according to Dillon’s office.
According to a 2020 EPA finding, the village had previously received a $1 million grant from the Ohio Public Works Commission and a $750,000 grant from the Community Development Block Grant program, as well as a $727,000 loan from the Water Pollution Control Loan Fund.
Some reamining need was filled in late November, when the U.S. EPA loaned the village $1.3 million to install an ammonia treatment reactor and blower, complete electrical work, remove lagoon sludge and liner and install an ultraviolet disinfection system at the wastewater treatment plant.
The third round of BUILDS water grants included $1.35 million to Laurelville’s project.
Dillon’s list also included two projects in Logan. The lower-ranked Logan project received $250,000 from Ohio BUILDS to plan and design phase three of a citywide sewer system improvements. The project will replace 20,000 feet of sewer lines, 1,700 feet of storm sewers and 68 manholes, build five new catch basins and connect an additional 300 homes and businesses to city water.
DLZ, a consulting firm, applied for project funding for the city. DLZ Project Coordinator Tracy Shoults estimated that the $250,000 will cover only about half the total cost of planning and design. Both Walker and Shoults estimate that the total cost of the city’s phase three sewer improvements will be around $6 million.
In wave three of funding, Le-Ax Water District, ranked fifth on the Athens County priority list, received a $345,500 grant to replace a 50-year-old below-ground pump station. The pumps and motors have been replaced, but the internal piping and station structure are 50 years old and need to be retired, according to the project summary. This station provides water to two water storage towers that serve approximately 3,100 residents and a business corridor within Athens, Canaan, Alexander, and Lodi Townships in Athens County — benefitting 3,112 people.
In round three, Wellston received $2.7 million for a project to separate the storm and sanitary sewers to rehabilitate the critical infrastructure along New York Avenue and Broadway Street. The project ranked the highest out of all the proposed Jackson County projects, Wellston Mayor Charlie Hudson said.
During Hudson's State of the City Address earlier this year, he said the city was working on infrastructure grants to replace water and sewer systems and to repave streets on New York Avenue and West Broadway Street. He said that sewer mitigation is a critical need due to EPA regulations.
The scope of the project includes new sanitary and storm sewers, new water lines and repaving sidewalks, Hudson added.
"I've been told that in the old days, if there was back up, they simply knocked a hole in another sewer line regardless of it being sanitary or storm to let it drain,” he continued.
As in Athens County, Vinton County's top-ranked project was passed over. The Vinton County commissioners and other officials said Garrett Ridge was their number one priority. Fout estimated the project would cost around $2 million.
Instead, the Le-Ax water District received a second $421,250 grant to extend a water line to provide clean and reliable drinking water to currently unserved residences. The state’s summary of the project says it will benefit 18 people in an area that has been asking for public water for more than 15 years.
Fout is frustrated that Garrett Ridge was not selected.
“I was told personally by the governor — on a Facebook (livestream) — in an eye-to-eye conference with him, or ‘talk,’ I should say, that help was on the way, he’s definitely gonna help us,” Fout said. “And to do the little (Le-ax project) was kind of a spit in my face, to be honest with you.”
Vinton County also received $519,000 for the second-ranked McArthur project, to remove and land-apply biosolids from the lagoons in the Vinton County seat — benefitting 2,064 people according to a summary.
The grant allows the department to replace and clean four 31-year-old aeration pumps and to replace rusty, worn-out air diffusers to help remove ammonia from the pond.
Mark Little, acting superintendent of the McArthur Water Department, said that the village had not been fined by the EPA, but the agency had issued a warning due to high ammonia levels in the lagoon. In some cases, the EPA can fine up to $10,000 a day for non-compliance, he said.
Because the lagoon discharged into surrounding creeks such as Elk Creek, high concentrations of ammonia can prove detrimental to aquatic life. The project should be finished by April, Little estimated.
“We’re just really appreciful (sic) of getting the grant, because that would have been a big blow to our budget if we had to borrow the money,” Little said. “It was definitely a blessing in disguise to get that grant money.”
In Wellston, a project to replace a leaky water tank and extend a water line remains unfunded. The water line would extend to the General Mills plant in Wellston — which employs over 900 people — one of the largest employers in Jackson County. The tank is a “big problem,” he said.
General Mills currently gets water from Wellston, but it needs a backup water line from the city should something happen to the current line, he said. A failure in that water tank could be an economic catastrophe for the region, Hudson said.
“If something happens and they shut down and lay off, or decide, ‘Hey we’re gonna go some place closer to a water supply,’ then this whole region is gonna be impacted,” Hudson said.
“They would lose several million dollars a day if they have to close down,” he said. “I talked to their engineer a couple days ago and they’re actually running at over-peak capacity right now with the demand. If we lost water for say a week, it’d be devastating to General Mills.”
General Mills spokesperson Mollie Wulff said in a statement that the supply chain is a dynamic environment for the company. Wulff did not address several of the claims made by Hudson.
“Reliable water service is essential to the function of our business and ability to maintain employment of these individuals,” Wulff wrote in a statement. “We support the proactive work by the city on reviewing water upgrades/improvements.”
Hudson said in an interview before the third wave of funding was announced that he expected the project to get funding.
“We expect to pick up that funding from the next round that comes through — if not then I'll probably have to go up to the statehouse and try to track down the governor,” Hudson said.
The projects selected in Athens County include Glouster-based Burr Oak Regional Water District was awarded $4.91 million to add granular activated carbon (GAC) to its water treatment process. GAC filters remove contaminants such as pesticides and herbicides, volatile organic compounds, PCBs and byproducts from disinfection with chlorine. The project will help the district prepare for a potential future EPA requirement to use GAC, said Mike Elliot, district manager for Burr Oak. The grant will cover almost the entire cost of the project, he said.
“What it allows us to do is keep our rates down to our customers — and that's what we strive to do is keep an affordable price for safe water,” Elliot said.
At the opposite end of the county, the Tuppers Plains-Chester Water District will receive $90,000 for the planning and engineering design phase of a project that will extend a water line on South Rodehaver Road and Young Road in Carthage Township. Most of the Tuppers Plains-West Chester Water District is in Meigs County.
The project will bring public water to 43 people who currently get their water from cisterns and wells that, according to the state, have tested positive for E. coli and other pathogens.
“I just think it’s a good opportunity to get water to those people,” said Derek Baum, manager of Tuppers Plains-Chester Water District. “Grant money is appreciated because it saves us that money — in this area that’s important.”
Maiden ranked the Tuppers Plains project 20th and Burr Oak ranked last, at number 23.
Renner hopes the attention placed on the Baileys trailhead in the village can extend to some of the critical infrastructure needs facing Chauncey. On Monday, the office of Edwards announced a $25,833 grant for Chauncey for improvements at Chauncey-Dover Park, a Baileys trailhead. The work includes development of support facilities for the park and trailhead.
“I do think that we’re getting more attention thanks to the Baileys, but what's unfortunate about our issues with the sewer is it’s not unique at all,” Renner said. “I just think we get lost in the mix — and it's unfortunate because that whole $250 million could have been spent in Athens County.”
Cole Behrens, Corinne Colbert, Keri Johnson, William Meyer and Jeremiah Shaver contributed to this report.
This article was amended on Dec. 14 to remove a section on the legislature's role in the BUILDS funding awards. That information will appear in a subsequent story in this series.