Highland joins litigation over sewer rate dispute

2013-10-01T19:45:00Z 2013-10-04T00:18:05Z Highland joins litigation over sewer rate disputeBy Bill Dolan bill.dolan@nwi.com, (219) 662-5328 nwitimes.com
October 01, 2013 7:45 pm  • 

HIGHLAND | Town officials are suing the Hammond Sanitary District to avoid having the community's sewer costs triple.

Highland has joined Griffith and Whiting in asking a Lake Superior Court judge to prevent Hammond from tearing up a 19-year-old cost-sharing agreement over wastewater treatment the sanitary district now claims is outdated.

Highland alleges its residents are living under the threat of the sanitary district refusing to accept their wastewater during future heavy-rain events. Highland, which doesn't have stormwater storage capacity, would likely experience sewage backups "potentially threatening public safety and causing property damage."

Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said Tuesday Griffith, Highland and Whiting must accept higher rates, because Hammond and Munster residents are unfairly bearing the entire cost of tens of millions of dollars in recent federally mandated water-pollution controls.

McDermott said Highland Town Hall could pay its fair share of upgraded wastewater treatment without passing along any increase to the town's home and businesses owners.

"We don't want Highland, Griffith and Whiting to pay a penny more than our own residents pay. Highland residents already pay more than that. So theoretically, the town could absorb the hit," McDermott said. "They could accept the terms of the new agreement without increasing the rates on their customers, but they don't want to because they are making money off of wastewater."

The sanitary district treats sewage for 150,000 in Griffith, Hammond, Highland, Munster and Whiting. It is jointly owned by Hammond and Munster and services the other three communities through contracts dating back to the 1990s.

The contracts were set to run several more years, but the sanitary district filed notice last month it was canceling its obligations to Griffith, Highland and Whiting to try to readjust payment terms.

The dispute has arisen from a mandate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that Hammond spend tens of millions of dollars to improve its water-pollution controls, including building a retention basin to stop dumping untreated wastewater into the Grand Calumet River during heavy storm events.

McDermott said Griffith, Highland and Whiting weren't paying their share of the added costs and were pumping more wastewater to Hammond than was permitted under the old contract.

Highland officials said they have asked the sanitary district to have an independent audit of water services to definitively assign each community's share of the cost, but cannot get the district to agree.

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