WASHINGTON — After years of working to ease the financial pressure of an ongoing $2 billion, federally mandated sewer overhaul, Mayor Jim Suttle swears he sees signs that regulators might be lightening up.
“I see them listening. I see them softening up a little. I see them being a little more accommodating,” Suttle said. “I can read their body language, that they're more comfortable with us.”
Suttle spoke with The World-Herald immediately after a three-hour meeting Monday with top officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and other mayors representing several different associations.
Omaha, like many jurisdictions across the country, is attempting to bring its sewers into compliance with Clean Water Act requirements. The city's current sewer system can be overwhelmed by a decent rainstorm, flushing raw sewage into area waterways.
Throughout his four years in office, Suttle has been pressing federal regulators to work with the city to find less expensive ways to meet those requirements and to develop other funding sources for the project.
As it is, local utility rates are increasing to pay for the work.
Suttle says his many trips to Washington to talk to the EPA have produced progress in that the discussions now focus more on affordability than on strict enforcement of the regulations.
Still, that's a long way from solving the problem. Suttle said moving the federal government isn't easy.
His biggest priority is finding a way to avoid construction of a huge tunnel that is included in the current plan and represents more than 40 percent of the project's cost. He wants more funding for research on how chemicals and other processes can be used to neutralize bacteria.
He also has asked Omaha's team working on the project to have alternative solutions identified by January 2015, well before the current plan calls for tunnel design work to start in 2017 or 2018.
It is an open question whether Suttle will still be in office come 2015, however. The incumbent Democrat faces a tough fight in the city election, which is only two weeks away.
His opponent, Republican City Councilwoman Jean Stothert, has suggested that she would try a different approach to the city's sewer woes.
“Moving forward, we need to concentrate on the cost and flexibility of the project, ensuring that the fee structure is fair and equitable to Omaha families and businesses,” Stothert said in a written statement. “We need the right mayor who will responsibly oversee the management of the project and will make awarding contracts to Omaha companies a priority.”
Suttle said Stothert has been offering generalities on the issue, while he is focused on the details of how to actually solve the problem.
The Nebraska chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity has criticized Suttle for not taking the EPA to court, as some other cities have done.
Suttle said it would be counterproductive to engage in an all-out legal war with a federal agency that has access to plenty of lawyers and vast financial resources.
“You don't get anywhere by doing that,” Suttle said.
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