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Sewage-contaminated water is seeping into an African American cemetery. Who is responsible remains a mystery

One of Ohio’s oldest African American cemeteries is carefully maintained by Cincinnati’s Union Baptist Church. But United American Cemetery in Madisonville is facing a problem beyond the church’s resources: human sewage seeping up from the ground. The cemetery has been closed to the public for nearly a year while the church has struggled to get answers.

Walking through United American Cemetery on Duck Creek Road, you see a lot of green hillsides dotted with head stones.

This location was founded in 1883, but it includes graves moved from another African American cemetery in Avondale that was founded in 1844 and closed in 1884. The oldest legible tombstone is from 1832.

Buried here are significant historical figures, such as Underground Railroad conductors, abolitionists, the first African American elected to Cincinnati City Council, and veterans of every major U.S. war — including more than 50 Civil War veterans.

A large area near the center of the cemetery is roped off with bright orange caution tape.

“If you can look into the marshy area that's around in these cat tails, you can see that it's wet in here — there are graves in here. And they're now under this contaminated water.”

John Stillpass, attorney for Union Baptist Church, says this is where lab testing showed the highest levels of contamination.

“If you stop and sniff, you can smell the stench, and there's no question of what we're smelling,” he says.

It’s feces. The smell comes in waves as we walk through the grounds.

The church paid for private testing that found extremely high levels of fecal coliform in the surface water.

The EPA says it’s unsafe to contact water with levels above 200. The lowest of the samples last June was over a thousand, and the highest was 51,000:

  • Sample 1: 51,000 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 2: 25,000 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 3: 3,900 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 4: 1,400 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 5: 50,000 CFU/100mL

“Based on the concentrations of fecal coliform detected in the water at the subject site, it appears the likely contributing source of fecal coliform bacteria is from a release of sewage,” said a letter from Westech Environmental Solutions sent along with the test results. “Contact with this impacted water should be avoided until the concentration of fecal coliform is below the EPA recommended levels.”

The church immediately closed the cemetery to the public.

A headstone at United American Cemetery in Madisonville.
Nick Swartsell
A headstone at United American Cemetery in Madisonville.

But it wasn’t enough for local government agencies to take action.

Stillpass said the Metropolitan Sewer District did an inspection and figured out the sewer leak isn’t coming from a public system, which means there’s nothing MSD can do about it.

Stillpass sent the test results to the Cincinnati Health Department. According to a report obtained in a public records request, an investigator visited the cemetery in early August; the report says the investigator didn’t see any sewage and closed the complaint. The Health Department declined an interview.

The church paid for more testing in November, which showed the contamination had gotten even worse:

  • Sample 1: 26,000 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 2: 2,900 CFU/100mL
  • Sample 3: 76,000 CFU/100mL

The second round of testing also indicated the source has to be human, not from birds or other animals.

Meanwhile, hundreds of families can’t visit their loved one’s graves, or bury anyone else.

“How can your ancestors rest in peace when they got fecal water flowing over their casket?” says Daniel Buford, whose father was buried in United American in 1993, alongside seven generations of ancestors.

“We're trying to defend the dignity of people who can't defend their own dignity,” he said. “And it's an affront to human dignity to have your final resting place polluted by sewage.”

Where is the sewage coming from?

Stillpass thinks the source of the problem is pretty clear.

“What we’re smelling here is stuff that doesn’t flow uphill, and the only property uphill from this property is the bank property.”

He’s talking about the Fifth Third Bank Madisonville Office Building, which borders the cemetery uphill to the east. It’s part of the campus that includes the Madisonville Operations Center just off I-71.

Stillpass thinks there's a leak in the plumbing system that ends up in the cemetery downhill.

Fifth Third's Corporate Communications office declined an interview. In a statement, it said the bank tested the plumbing systems and didn’t find a leak.

Stormwater runoff lawsuit

Union Baptist Church is already suing Fifth Third for a separate issue.

Stillpass says the office building directed all its stormwater runoff directly into the cemetery, slowly eroding the soil and disturbing dozens of graves.

In response, Fifth Third spent about $600,000 to redirect stormwater drains to a municipal system under Duck Creek Road.

“The water drainage and upkeep issues in the United American Cemetery long predate Fifth Third’s presence at its current Madisonville campus,” the company said in a statement. “Fifth Third has worked in good faith to address United Baptist Church’s concerns about water runoff and Fifth Third’s adjacent Madisonville property. Fifth Third has voluntarily undertaken work to mitigate any water runoff from its property.”

Stillpass says it didn't solve the entire problem. The lawsuit is ongoing.

What's next?

Council Member Mark Jeffreys saw the problem first-hand about a month ago and immediately called the Cincinnati Health Department

“At the end of the day, what we really want is to allow the cemetery to open back up where it's safe for families to visit their relatives,” Jeffreys said.

Less than a week later, inspectors were dropping dye packs in toilets at the Fifth Third building. None of the dye surfaced in the cemetery groundwater, so they tested plumbing systems at the neighboring Red Bank Reserve apartment complex (to the north) and Shroder High School (to the east). Still nothing.

United American Cemetery is bordered Duck Creek Road on the south and several properties to the north, east, and west.
Google Earth
United American Cemetery is bordered Duck Creek Road on the south and several properties to the north, east, and west.

“What we're trying to solve for is to understand the source of this human fecal matter,” Jeffreys said. “So we can stop the source first, and then second, we can clean it up.”

The health department plans to do more dye pack testing at the Fifth Third office building. So far, dye packs have been deposited in two toilets of one restroom, which means one or more of the sewer lines that connect to the sewer system may not have been tested.

According to Fifth Third representatives, their own testing consisted of smoke, dye, and remote cameras, and included all restrooms and all sewer lines on the property. Fifth Third also tested three stormwater outfalls near the cemetery for human bacteroides and the results were negative.

Stillpass says even when the sewage and runoff problems are solved, it will be difficult for Union Baptist Church to pay for the cleanup and repair the damage.

Corrected: July 7, 2022 at 10:20 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story said the health department had only tested one toilet in the Fifth Third building. It has been updated to reflect two toilets in one restroom were dye tested. The story has also been updated with more information about the testing commissioned by Fifth Third.
Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.