ST. LOUIS (AP) -- The federal government and the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District agreed to a settlement on Thursday that calls for the nation's fourth-largest sewer system to spend nearly $5 billion over the next 23 years to eliminate problems such as sewage backing up into homes and spilling into rivers.
The agreement filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis must still be approved by the court. It would end a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Protection Agency four years ago accusing the district of discharging untreated sewage into rivers and streams in violation of federal clean water laws.
"St. Louis is really going to become a world-class model in this," Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Karl Brooks said at a news conference in St. Louis.
It wasn't clear how the district would pay for the improvements, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that a plan before MSD's rate commission would eventually double the current average monthly bill.
In a statement, the sewer district called the agreement "very fair," but "the fact remains that this is billions of dollars that will come from the pocketbook of St. Louis ratepayers -- with little or no state or federal assistance -- and will be unavailable for other critical needs in our community."
The district serves about 1.4 million residents in St. Louis city and county. The system includes seven wastewater treatment plants and nearly 10,000 miles of sewer lines.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit in 2007 and was later joined by the state of Missouri and the Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation. The state did not agree to the settlement. Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Chris Koster, said the state has not been able to reach agreement on all issues with the sewer district.
The wide-ranging, $4.7 billion settlement requires the sewer district to install pollution controls, expand capacity at two treatment plants and replace aging pipelines. It includes $100 million for the development of green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and permeable pavement.
Brooks and Ignacia Moreno, an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said the improvements are long overdue.
"St. Louis, America's Gateway City, grew up alongside the Mississippi," Brooks said. "Unfortunately, for too long it treated the river's tributaries as a dumping ground for sewage."
The suit also alleged that on at least 7,000 occasions from 2001 through 2005, a system failure allowed raw sewage to overflow into homes, yards, parks, streets and playgrounds.
The result, Brooks said, was blighted and degraded homes and property, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods, where the backups were most likely to occur.
The agreement requires the district to eliminate some 200 illegal sanitary sewer bypasses that allow sewage to make its way into waterways or the ground by 2033. The district must remove 50 of the bypasses by the end of 2012.
The government has reached similar settlements in other cities, including one last September with Kansas City, Mo., that called for the city to spend $2.5 billion to renovate its aging sewer system and pay a $600,000 fine for violating clean water laws. That plan would also eliminate most overflows of untreated raw sewage and seek to reduce pollution levels in urban storm water.