An Ohio Environmental Protection Agency proposal to allow small, privately operated sewage-treatment plants to aid rapid development in rural Delaware and Licking counties has raised concerns among local officials about potential pollution of waterways.

“Significant and rapid development is projected in central Ohio in the next several years,” the EPA wrote in an online notice of the plan and a public meeting on the topic set for 6 p.m. March 20 at the Mary E. Babcock Library in Johnstown. “Many local wastewater authorities are developing plans to provide sanitary sewage collection and treatment systems, but growth is expected to outpace capacity increases in the near-term.”

Licking County officials said that state officials have told them the proposal was driven by the need for housing for construction workers and employees of Intel and related companies coming to the New Albany International Business Park in western Licking County. Intel is building what it says will be the largest computer-chip manufacturing complex in the world – a $20 billion factory covering nearly 1,000 acres of former farmland in New Albany, just south of Johnstown.

The EPA said that it is considering fast-tracking small treatment plants, which are sometimes called “package plants,” as an interim measure “to ensure treatment capacity can meet the increasing wastewater demand.”

Ohio EPA Director Anne M. Vogel acknowledged in an introduction to the proposal that she has “determined that a lowering of water quality in water of the state in central Ohio is necessary.”

Such treatment plants could each handle up to 75,000 gallons of sewage a day, which Licking County authorities say could accommodate subdivisions of up to 60 houses or a hotel-restaurant complex.

The Licking County commissioners sent a letter to the EPA last week to say that this is a bad idea and that they oppose it. The Licking County Health Department did the same on Monday with a letter to the EPA saying that the facilities would increase the likelihood of untreated wastewater being discharged to waterways across Licking County.


“This will result in the degradation of our environment and pose a public health risk to drinking water for county residents,” wrote Chad Brown, Licking County Health Commissioner, who said in an interview that many Licking County residents depend on area waterways for drinking water and use them for recreation, such as fishing and swimming.

Brown wrote to the EPA that the health department supports growth and development and has worked to improve its processes so that it does not inhibit growth, but it opposes the EPA’s proposal. “Willingly adding (such facilities) serving large developments poses an unnecessary risk to the public health of the citizens of Licking and Delaware counties,” Brown wrote.  


Kristy Hawthorne, program administrator for Licking County Soil and Water Conservation District, said it’s an environmental mess in the making.

“The long-term vision for this is terrifying,” Hawthorne said. “First and foremost, there would be no limit on the number of them in any particular watershed. So if hundreds of them wanted to come in and develop housing subdivisions or motels, they could all dump effluent into Raccoon Creek, for example.”

And when these plants are not operating properly, or they fail, the result is that poorly treated or untreated sewage will flow into area waterways, Hawthorne said.

The EPA proposal would allow developers to build the small sewage-treatment plants and turn them over to homeowners associations to operate them until water and sewer lines are extended to the development.

“Homeowners associations are good at throwing parties, but they don’t know anything about running sewage-treatment plants,” Hawthorne said. “And even if they wanted to hire someone to do it, there is a shortage of certified treatment-plant operators.”


Licking County Commissioner Tim Bubb said he and his fellow commissioners have seen what happens when such treatment plants fail.

“They don’t last forever,” he said. “We’ve had to decommission several of them. The plants failed, the developers and (homeowners associations) were long gone. So guess what? The taxpayers of Licking County had to clean up the mess.

“We’ve already been in the decommissioning mode at taxpayer expense,” Bubb said. “We’re very concerned.”

Bubb said allowing small treatment plants could up-end local comprehensive development plans and the countywide growth recommendations by Framework planners after a year-long series of meetings held after Intel’s announcement to build in western Licking County.

“It’s not good land-use planning,” Bubb said. “It would allow for a haphazard development. The proper way to do this is to plan out and install water and sewer lines. What they’re proposing is almost a wild-west kind of situation. Western Licking County doesn’t deserve that.”

The commissioners’ letter to the EPA, signed by Bubb and commissioners Duane Flowers and Rick Black, says the EPA’s proposal is “woefully insufficient to address long-term maintenance of these facilities. It is simply unrealistic to expect developers or homeowners’ associations to be accountable for long-term maintenance of these facilities, which, of course, means taxpayers will ultimately have to foot the bill.”

The commissioners also said the proposal does not grant sufficient local regulatory control or enforcement authority – or funding for either – to assure that the facilities would be properly monitored and inspected to assure they are operated properly.

They said the proposal does not adequately address or fund the decommissioning of such plants when they are no longer viable. And the commissioners said that if such sewage-treatment plants are allowed under this proposal, their presence would reduce the motivation of local utilities to expand services to underserved areas.

Hawthorne said the goal of creating more housing for Licking County – where the housing market is already tight – is laudable. The best way to do that and protect the environment is to “help Johnstown and other municipalities fund expansion of their water and sewer systems,” she said.

Doing that, she said, would also allow the school systems, the fire departments, and the road systems to keep up with growth in those areas, rather than encouraging unplanned, rapid development that puts pressure on the rural areas unprepared for that scale of development.

“They’re talking about wanting 30 hotels in western Licking County,” Hawthorne said. “We need affordable housing for the people of Licking County. If someone is going to build temporary housing for construction workers, make them apartment complexes and condos, so that when the construction workers leave, Licking County residents can utilize the housing long-term to address our shortage.”

The EPA says on its website that anyone who wants to offer their thoughts on the proposal can submit written comments by email to or by mail to: Ohio EPA, Division of Surface Water-Permits Processing Unit, P.O. Box 1049, Columbus, Ohio 43216-1049 by March 27, 2024. All comments should include “OHI000001” in the subject line for email or next to the Ohio EPA address on the envelope and on each page of mailed comments. And the EPA says that comments received after March 27 may not be considered as part of the administrative record. 

Alan Miller writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is funded by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.

Alan Miller

Alan Miller teaches journalism and writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University's Journalism Program. He is the former executive editor of The Columbus Dispatch and former Regional Editor for Gannett's 21-newsroom USAToday Network Ohio.