Opinion: Akron Sewer Project Hurts City’s Poor with High Rates

The term environmental justice is sweeping environmental advocacy groups and progressive political spheres alike. The term refers to achieving equality regarding access to clean water, unpolluted air and general resources across racial, gender and economic lines. 

The definition of environmental injustice is when these quality-of-life markers are not met, and are unequal along these social fault lines. One example of this, is that race is the best predictor of whether or not someone in the United States has access to clean water. 

Another example of water-related environmental injustice can be found in the Akron Waterways Renewal! project. 

The initiative seeks to address the major environmental problems with Akron’s combined-overflow sewers, namely the pollution of waterways like the Cuyahoga River with untreated sewer water during heavy rainfalls. It’s an important issue that is enforced via mandate from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But it’s also increasing the cost Akron residents pay for their sewer charges. 

The project is a billion-dollar overhaul of the sewer systems that needs to be completed by 2028. An article in the Akron Beacon Journal by Amanda Garrett and Doug Livingston details how Akron is hiking sewer rates to help pay for this project, and can cost some residents upwards of $80 a month. 

This is a prime example of environmental injustice because the raised costs for the sewer project will disproportionately affect the city’s poor. Pat Gsellman, an Akron Waterways Renewed! Project manager, said that whether or not a charge is considered “affordable” is based on if that charge exceeds 2% of the payer’s annual income. In some cases, the charge for Akron ratepayers has reached 2.9%, he says. 

While the importance of maintaining and improving the health of Akron’s waterways is highly consequential, critics are demanding a solution that does not rely on the city’s poorest to help fund it.

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