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Episode 1: Sewers Gonna Sue

There’s something wrong with the plumbing in Cincinnati.

You might not know about it, even if you’ve lived here all your life. But the people in charge know about it. Actually, they’ve known about it for decades — and some say it was supposed to be fixed by now.

Backed Up is a podcast from your neighbors at Cincinnati Public Radio, hosted by WVXU Local Government Reporter Becca Costello and Podcast Coordinator Ella Rowen.

In the first episode, our intrepid team of detectives embark on their mission to unearth the mysteries of the infrastructure under our feet.

Check out the Backed Up digital exhibit through the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library to explore the history of the Cincinnati sewer system. Visit

Acronyms in this episode:

  • MSD/MSDGC = Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
  • SBU = Sewer Backup
  • CSO = Combined Sewer Overflow
  • EPA = Environmental Protection Agency

Other information and resources in this episode:

See more photos and videos at


Backed Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Becca Costello: There's something wrong with the plumbing in Cincinnati.

[Newscast Audio]: Well, it looks like we're about to have most of the area probably blanketed under severe thunderstorm warnings.

Becca Costello: You might not know about it, even if you've lived here your whole life, but the people in charge know about it. Actually, they've known about it for decades, and we're supposed to have fixed it by now.

[Newscast Audio]: A year after Hamilton County and Cincinnati leaders thought they'd settled the future of the Metropolitan Sewer District the deal isn't done.

Becca Costello: Billions of gallons of raw sewage ends up in waterways every year. And for some that raw sewage is a lot closer to home. Wait, scratch that. Some people have actual s*** in their homes.

This is Backed Up, a podcast from your neighbors at Cincinnati Public Radio. I'm Becca Costello, journalist, Cincinnatian and Detective of Metropolitan mysteries ... or something like that.

Ella Rowen: I will do another just quick soundcheck. (singing) Talking about sewers today.

Becca Costello: That's Ella Rowen, Podcast Producer, fellow detective...

Ella Rowen: And friend of Becca Costello.

Becca Costello: She's gonna help me solve this mystery. We're talking about the sewers. For most of us once we flush the toilet, it's someone else's problem.

Ella Rowen: That is, until whatever you flushed comes back up.

Becca Costello: This is the first big mystery: sewage ends up in places it doesn't belong way more than it should, in Cincinnati and lots of other cities. So, why?

Ella Rowen: Should we bring in the bulletin board?

Becca Costello: Let's do it.

Ella Rowen: Alright, so if movies and TV have taught me anything about mystery solving it's that we need to put all of our evidence on a bulletin board.

Becca Costello: Imagine a dark windowless room. A cluttered table sits beneath a flickering bear light bulb, Ella is pouring herself a 10th cup of coffee, while I pin newspaper clippings and suspect photos to the bulletin board.

Ella Rowen: We connect the dots with red yarn trying to decode dozens of sewer related acronyms

[Many voices overlapping] EPA, CSO, MSD, CCF ...

Becca Costello: The sewer system is run by the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. And going forward, we're just gonna say MSD instead of ... all of that. MSD also covers most of Hamilton County.

Ella Rowen: MSD is a wastewater utility. They collect dirty sewage, like what goes down the toilet, industrial waste like what comes from factories, and a lot of stormwater, that comes from clouds.

Becca Costello: They treat it then release it squeaky clean back into waterways like the Mill Creek and the Ohio River. Here's how they describe their work.

[MSD Video]: The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati maintains more than 3000 miles of public sewer. On a typical dry weather day, wastewater from our homes, businesses and schools flows through the public sewer without problem to one of MSDs seven major wastewater treatment plants. But what happens when it rains?

Becca Costello: When it rains, the system can't handle the sudden influx of stormwater.

[MSD Video]: When it rains harder, even more stormwater can enter the sewers, which will cause the system to become overwhelmed with more flow than it can carry.

Becca Costello: Overwhelmed with more flow than it can carry. That means when it rains a lot, all at once, untreated sewage gets backed up —

[Archive Audio]: Hey, that's the name of the show

Becca Costello: — through pipes into people's basements. This is called a sewer backup, or SBU.

Ella Rowen: Sewer backups.

Becca Costello: Right.

Ella Rowen: Okay, so let's start there. That seems like kind of an urgent problem.

[knocking on a door]

Becca and Ella: Hello, thank you so much for having us.

Becca Costello: Florence Miller has lived in Cincinnati her whole life. This house right on the edge of Clifton and North Avondale was built in 1922. And she's lived here for over 50 years right now with one of her sisters been retired

Florence Miller: I've been retired since 2016. And before that, I was a programmer analyst from like 1968. And I have two sisters and a brother and I'm the oldest of the four. I've traveled pretty much of the world. I've been to 25 countries, ridden on the Trans Siberian railroad, and walked the Great Wall of China. Been to the Galapagos Islands, Iceland. So yeah, I've been fortunate to be able to do that.

Becca Costello: But you've always stayed in Cincinnati as your home base. So why is that? What do you what do you love about Cincinnati that kept you here?

Florence Miller: It was family. You know, we're all here within 10 miles of one another.

Becca Costello: That's really the best definition of home, right?

Florence Miller: Right. Like the Wizard of Oz, there's no place like home, right?

[Wizard of Oz]: It's a twister! It's a twister!

Becca Costello: Actually, it was a thunderstorm. On a rainy August night in 2016.

Florence Miller: It was a Sunday night. I think it was a Sunday night

[Newscast Audio]: Torrents of rain falling from the sky collecting on concrete and asphalt, creating the perfect flash flood storm.

Becca Costello: Florence had just retired. She was sitting at home watching what she thought was a typical Midwest storm roll in. But when she went down the basement stairs to check on her cat, Gabriel, she realized this storm was different.

[To Florence] Did you know that it was sewage?

Florence Miller: Oh yeah. When it's coming out of the drain down there, it's sewage.

Becca Costello: Did it smell?

Florence Miller: Oh yeah, the stench was terrible.

Ella Rowen: Dirty water was gushing up through the floor drains and it was rising fast.

Florence Miller: I mean, it was it was up to our waist and we were wading through and it's like, if we would have fallen down, we would have drowned. And I've never seen anything like that in my life. You know, and I'm in my late 70s.

Becca Costello: Florence showed us piles of pictures she'd saved from the day of the storm. We have a whole bunch.

Florence Miller: We have a whole bunch, but this is the one that was on the newspaper. That's my car.

Ella Rowen: Oh my god. That photo was wild. The water nearly covered the hood of her car. The

Becca Costello: The headline by the way above this.

Florence Miller: Oh, storm of the century, right. Because here's the backyard. That's the backyard.

Becca Costello: It's just a pond.

Florence Miller: Yeah. And I'm just glad Gabriel wasn't down in the basement at the time. Because he would, he would have died.

Ella Rowen: Gabriel the cat was thankfully not in the basement that night. But Florence stored lots of meaningful things down there. Like family keepsakes.

Florence Miller: We lost my great aunt's credenza down there. We lost that and we lost my mother's wicker needlepoint basket. And we lost some personal Christmas ornaments. You know, because everything was just toppled over.

Becca Costello: The list of damages was long.

Florence Miller: Oh yeah, this was the dryer.

Becca Costello: Was that ruined?

Florence Miller: Oh, yeah. The dryer and the washer and the water heater, the furnace, Air conditioner, the dehumidifier. Yeah, there's a gazillion pictures.

Becca Costello: Oh, wow. It almost looks like a tornado, like tornado damage.

Florence Miller: But then, too, the gas was leaking, you know, from the furnace? Everything was destroyed.

Becca Costello: Were you aware of issues with the sewer system or anything before this happened to you?

Florence Miller: No, no. I mean, that would be the farthest thing from anybody's mind, really. Yeah.

Ella Rowen: Florence said the water went down within a couple of hours. But the damage stayed behind.

Becca Costello: The morning after the storm, she actually saw a couple of MSD workers down the street.

Florence Miller: And I thought they're coming over here and they're gonna see this, and they're gonna say it's, you know, sewage backup, and they're gonna give me a work order.

Becca Costello: She marched over there and just stood waiting for them to finish and then demanded an inspection. And it worked. They came over and took responsibility.

Florence Miller: It was draining to do this, you know, because we were trying to clean out everything. Plus, you know, itemize everything, and then put it in a spreadsheet that you could submit to them. I mean, it took months.

Ella Rowen: When MSD causes a sewer backup, they're supposed to cover the cleaning costs,

Florence Miller: You know, then I submitted the claim for the cleaning because it was mold and mildew mediation, and then the fans to dry everything up. Oh, then MSD wasn't paying him. And then he came over one Saturday and said, I'm gonna put a lien on your property. I said, Oh, no, you're not. You know, it's like, that's not my problem. You need to deal with MSD.

Becca Costello: So when you first submitted your itemized claim, what was the total amount that you ended up with that you would need to pay?

Florence Miller: It was $22,000. That was quite a lump sum of money, you know, and, and like people couldn't afford to finance that kind of thing either. Fortunately, I could. But it took over a year to pay everything off.

Ella Rowen: I just keep picturing Florence wading through all of that water in her basement looking for her cat. And it — oh, I hate it.

Becca Costello: Right, and think about what raw sewage actually means. We're talking bacteria, other hazardous substances that can be pretty dangerous to come into contact with.

Ella Rowen: And like she didn't swallow any of the water. But imagine if she had! She easily could have tripped and fallen.

Becca Costello: And Florence wasn't the only one with a flooded basement that night. The 2016 storm ended up being one of the worst in decades. There were sewer backups and flooding all over the city.

Ella Rowen: So let's get back to the bulletin board. We have our first newspaper clipping here: Storm of the Century, with that photo of Florence's car.

Becca Costello: We've got a definition for MSD: Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. And SBU: sewer backup.

Ella Rowen: Awesome. So I think now it's time to talk about the other big sewer problem.

Becca Costello: And the other big acronym. It's this thing called a CSO.

Ella Rowen: So sorry to disappoint. In this case, CSO does not stand for Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It actually stands for combined sewer overflow.

Becca Costello: Right. Just like a sewer backup. combined sewer overflows are caused by the sewer system, well, overflowing, but on a much bigger scale.

Ella Rowen: Imagine Florence's sewer backup but times a thousand. And instead of basements, billions of gallons of raw sewage is dumped into creeks and rivers. That's a CSO.

Becca Costello: And this happens because Cincinnati has what's called a combined sewer system. In a combined sewer system, everything we flushed down the toilet or pour down the kitchen drain goes into a pipe under the street. And then all the rainwater that pours through storm drains in the gutters ... all of that goes into the same pipe. Hence the combined in combined sewer system. It's a combination of both sewage and rainwater. And that's why the system is so easily overwhelmed when there's a large rain event.

Ella Rowen: By the way, lots of cities have combined sewer systems like this, mostly in the northeast and around the Great Lakes. Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, Indianapolis.

Becca Costello: Some of the largest cities in the US have at least partially combined sewer systems. New York, DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Chicago.

Ella Rowen: It's a lot less common outside the Northeast and Midwest. But there are a couple of outliers: Nashville, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

Becca Costello: According to the EPA, about 700 US cities have combined sewers. It's pretty common in Europe, too. According to the United Kingdom's Environment Agency, all the sewage utilities in England are combined with stormwater.

Ella Rowen: So all of these cities have systems that dump raw sewage into waterways almost anytime it rains. And this is exactly how they designed it. So, why?

Becca Costello: We're gonna have to nerd out a little more Ella.

Jack Rennekamp: I'm Jack Rennekamp and I'm both a 40 year now retired employee of the city of Cincinnati, 33 years at the Metropolitan Sewer District, as well as historian by training and education.

Becca Costello: Jack is a history nerd. He's also a sewer nerd. So basically the perfect person to explain why Cincinnati sewer system is so darn wacky.

Jack Rennekamp: Cincinnati made a deliberate choice. In fact, that middle to late 19th century so from 1850 to roughly 1875, they made a deliberate choice to build combined sewers.

Ella Rowen: Lots of people were moving from rural areas to urban areas, that's a lot more people in a much smaller space generating lot more waste.

Becca Costello: And there were more hard surfaces. So instead of rain falling on grass or dirt and soaking into the soil, rain was falling on brick and cobblestone and collecting in streets. So residential areas downtown started flooding.

Jack Rennekamp: You have to think about it from a 19th century standpoint. You didn't have automobiles, you didn't have pollution from gasoline, you had pollution from what? Animals. So you had horse droppings, your had cow droppings, you had everything that was used to transport people through urban centers before there was a mechanical way to do it. And that was handled in part by the storm sewers that existed at the time. Cincinnati early city engineers made a conscious decision to build a combined sewer system, not only reflecting cost, but also reflecting benefit. You were capturing everything that you needed to capture, everything that was possibly going to pollute a portion of the city.

Ella Rowen: By the early 1900s Cincinnati had sewers, but no treatment plants. Everything got dumped into the nearest body of water, including the Ohio River.

Jack Rennekamp: One of the mantras of 19th century sanitary engineering was the solution to pollution is dilution. What did the Ohio have? It had a fast moving river. Of course, there were no locks or dams at this time, and you would discharge sewage into the river and it would be out of sight out of mind.

Ella Rowen: The solution to pollution is dilution! It's so catchy, it must be true.

Becca Costello: It kind of is. But dilution only goes so far.

[Archive Audio]: Research at the new U.S. Public Health sanitary engineering center is vital if our rivers are to serve a growing population and industrial plant. Cincinnati learned the hard way the importance of maintaining water quality along the river that is literally its life. In 1930 and 1931, severe outbreaks of intestinal disorders occurred in cities that use the river for drinking water.

Jack Rennekamp: The idea of having sewage go into the Ohio River was also detrimental, because where did Cincinnatians get their drinking water? From the Ohio River.

Becca Costello: Some basic treatment facilities were built starting in the early 20th century. And at this point, they're still just taking out the worst of the worst.

Ella Rowen: So like the chemicals being dumped into the Mill Creek by all of the factories.

Becca Costello: And then in 1948, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. And this is a really big deal. It's the first federal legislation dealing with water pollution on a national level.

Ella Rowen: And now there's this growing concept of the environment as something important that should be protected instead of Concord.

Jack Rennekamp: In 1962, one of the seminal environmental books was released Silent Spring, about the effect of pollution on wildlife and nature.

Ella Rowen: Rachel Carson is actually one of my favorite authors. She was an American marine biologist, conservationist and general badass. She wrote Silent Spring to explain why people should care about the environment.

[Rachel Carson]: Now to these people, apparently the balance of nature was something that was repealed as soon as man came on the scene. Well, you might just as well assume that you could repeal the law of gravity.

Ella Rowen: Like how cool is she?

Becca Costello: Okay, Rachel Carson is pretty cool.

Ella Rowen: Right?

Becca Costello: Meanwhile, back in Ohio.

Jack Rennekamp: The State Board of Health was doing various surveys within the city of Cincinnati looking at the health of creeks and streams, as well as the Ohio River. So that became a precursor to MSD and the county and the city saying, collaboratively, we need to solve these issues.

Becca Costello: This is a big moment for the bulletin board. In 1968, Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials decided to join forces and create the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati.

Ella Rowen: MSD connected the existing sewer system in Cincinnati together to dozens of other sewer systems in some of the suburban communities. But in order to accomplish this, MSD had to agree on a political structure.

Becca Costello: This agreement, referred to as the 1968 agreement, was that the city would operate the system while the county would own it and control the budget. That same basic structure is still in place now over 50 years later. We'll talk a lot more about the 1968 agreement later on.

Ella Rowen: Some light foreshadowing.

Becca Costello: So the 1960s are almost over. The general public is starting to care about the environment MSD forms. And then...

Ella Rowen: And then...

[Archival Audio]: Cuyahoga River in Ohio is so loaded with the waste products of petroleum distillation that it is actually in danger of catching fire

Ella Rowen: In 1969, not long after MSD was created, an oil slick caught fire on the polluted Cuyahoga River in northern Ohio, and it sparked a nationwide campaign to do more to protect our waterways.

Becca Costello: In response to growing climate consciousness nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA was established in 1970. And President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act into law in 1972. And that fixed everything right?

Marilyn Wall: I guess part of the frustration and challenge of working in this area is you can have a Law and say by 1985 we'll be fishable and swimmable across the country. And it doesn't happen.

Becca Costello: Meet Marilyn Wall, longtime Cincinnatian an even longer time advocate for the environment.

Ella Rowen: Marilyn spends most of her time enjoying the great outdoors and working to protect it.

Becca Costello: It was a lot tougher in the early days, even after the Clean Water Act. Marilyn and many other volunteers canvass neighborhoods to tell people what was wrong with the sewers, and try to get political support for fixing it.

Marilyn Wall: Things moved very slowly, in those years to try to get improvements in things that really matter to citizens who are affected by environmental issues. And certainly there weren't politicians running around saying, gee, let's raise sewer rates and fix all these. You know, there are more exciting things to get your name in the paper about fixing a sewer line is not gonna make you famous, or get you reelected. But it's still pretty important. You know, when it fails, it fails pretty bad.

Becca Costello: What happens next is a little confusing. So let's put this on a timeline on our bulletin board of madness. In 1994, the EPA created the combined sewer overflow control policy. It required cities with combined sewer systems like Cincinnati to reduce the amount of raw sewage getting dumped in waterways.

Ella Rowen: Fast forward to 2000. MSD still hadn't come up with a plan to accomplish that.

Marilyn Wall: You know, it became apparent to us that nothing was going to happen unless we tried to take it to another level of pressure to get this to happen.

Ella Rowen: That pressure took the form of a lawsuit. The Sierra Club filed notice of intent to sue under the Clean Water Act giving MSD 60 days to respond.

Marilyn Wall: And then there's also the US EPA and Ohio EPA have a chance to do something in that timeframe. And what they did was they filed a complaint and a consent decree, it was called the interim partial consent decree, at the last minute to keep us from filing and we became intervenors in the case.

Ella Rowen: And get this: Marilyn is the only named person in this lawsuit, and one of just a handful of the original people still working on this issue today.

Becca Costello: Now the federal courts are involved. A judge is helping the city, the county and MSD negotiate how to move forward. But it's not all resolved yet. Because MSD is now under federal orders to dramatically reduce combined sewer overflows, so they can be in compliance with the Clean Water Act. It took four years to finalize this order, called a global consent decree.

Ella Rowen: Do we have to do an acronym for that one?

Becca Costello: No, thank God.

Ella Rowen: Then the EPA had to approve a plan for specifically how MSD would reduce sewer overflows. That took another six years. That means the first phase of work on the consent decree started in about 2010, almost 15 years after the EPA first started regulating sewer overflows. And decades after groups like the Sierra Club first started advocating for change.

Becca Costello: The first phase of the consent decree work actually just recently wrapped up in 2021. And it cost over a billion dollars. In 2009 MSD was dumping about 14 billion gallons of untreated sewage into waterways every year. Now, it's an average of about six or seven billion gallons, which is definitely progress.

Ella Rowen: Progress that took a long time.

Marilyn Wall: It seemed to me that this was something that could have been accomplished, you know, in 20 years, roughly. And of course, we've learned a lot more about just how much the system needed other upgrades and repairs as well. So it's kind of been hit by a two problems that cost a lot of money.

Ella Rowen: So MSD is trying to retrofit a century and a half old sewer system to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Plus, it costs a lot of money just to keep the system running.

Becca Costello: So our bulletin board has gotten pretty crowded already. We have untreated sewage backing up into people's homes, also getting dumped into waterways.

Ella Rowen: We know both of those things are caused by the city's combined sewer system. And we know MSD is not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. And that's why there's a consent decree that's supposed to force improvements.

Becca Costello: We know there's been some progress, over a billion dollars spent and a lot less raw sewage being dumped.

Ella Rowen: But we also know it's not fixed and there's still a really long way to go.

Becca Costello: So usually these mysteries have a clear bad guy, right? It's the monster of the week, the villain that we unmask at the end of every episode. I just don't think this is going to be that easy.

Ella Rowen: We asked Florence, who has literally waded through sewage water in her basement, who she thinks the villain is.

Florence Miller: It's MSD. I mean, they keep pointing the finger at everybody else is overland flooding. And then the Judge Barrett, you know, the federal judge with the compliance of the Clean Water Act. I mean, it's just a mess. You know, you got the city, the county, the federal courts, and EPA is in there, too. So I don't know, they're all villains when it comes to, you know, really helping people that need the help because of the incapacity of the sewer systems.

Ella Rowen: Florence listed several suspects there.

Becca Costello: Yeah I think that's a pretty common feeling among people who've had to deal with these issues, especially a sewer backup at home.

Ella Rowen: What about Marilyn, the only person named in the lawsuit attempting to fix all of this?

Becca Costello [To Marilyn]: Is there a villain in the story? You know, who's who's the bad guy?

Marilyn Wall: Well, I think that's part of what's amazing about it, because nobody's in favor of sewage in basements. Nobody really wants to walk down to a creek and smell sewage. There's nobody who wants it run this way. But there's just a lot of 'don't raise sewer rates.' There's not really a villain, you know, and that seems really weird, I guess, because you know, I think maybe part of the villain is the 1968 agreement that this didn't make it clear who is responsible and who's accountable. And the whole governance of the MSD is a huge issue, just simply because there's really nobody in charge when everybody's in charge.

Ella Rowen: So Marilyn's suspect is the 1968 agreement.

Becca Costello: Right. So remember, that's when Cincinnati and Hamilton County agreed to create MSD in the first place, which sounds like a good idea, but it's actually caused a bit of drama over the years.

Ella Rowen: Next time on Backed Up.

Jack Rennekamp: Something has to change from a political standpoint.

Denise Driehaus: It creates some dysfunction, some communication issues related to MSD. So it's a cumbersome relationship.

[Statement from federal judge]: If the parties are not able to stop the finger pointing and work collaboratively, the court will be forced to implement more draconian measures.

[Stephanie Summerow Dumas] Why? Why did you think you had the authority to do that?

[Victoria Parks]: This is offensive. This is upsetting.

Ella Rowen: Backed Up is a Cincinnati Public Radio Podcast produced with support from PRX and made possible in part by a grant from the John S and James L. Knight Foundation

Becca Costello: Backed Up is reported and produced by Becca Costello — that's me — and Ella Rowen, with support from Casey Kuhn.

Ella Rowen: Thanks to everyone who helped put this episode together and bring it to life: Tana Weingartner, Jenn Merritt, Ronny Salerno, Zack Carreon, Marshall Verbsky, Steven Baum, Brittany Mayti, Kevin Reynolds and Leslie Smith.

Becca Costello: Maryanne Zeleznik is our VP of news. Jenell Walton is our VP of content. Nicole Tiffany made our podcasts cover art.

Ella Rowen: Special thanks to Sam Ransohoff, Toni Carlson, Grace Abler, Stephanie Kuo, and Mike Russo.

Becca Costello: Go to to find a transcript of this episode. Plus lots of pictures and extra info.

Ella Rowen: Basically everything except the smell of the sewers.

[Ella singing]: I took a s*** today, my friends. It went into the same pipe as the rain.

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.
Starting with WVXU as a weekend host, Ella was promoted to the engineering department full-time within her first six months. Some of her previous audio pursuits included location recording for commercials, independent podcasting, voice work on national ad campaigns, sound design and music composition. Her passion for audio was catalyzed at the age of 8 while watching WKRP in Cincinnati. After spending her childhood recording imaginary programs with friends and family, working in public radio now fulfills her lifelong dream.