By Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Advocate for the state PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups)
The dangers of untreated sewage are well-known. The bacteria, viruses, worms and other disgusting and hazardous things in sewage make over 7 million people sick per year in the U.S., according to the EPA.We become sick when sewage contaminates our drinking water and food as well as our swimming beaches and fishing and boating areas. The impacts are particularly harsh on those who are least able to defend themselves: children, the elderly and immuneimpaired individuals. Beyond the health impacts, improperly treated sewage causes economic impacts through beach closings as well as increased costs to treat water and, of course, health care costs and lost productivity of sick workers.
Yet, over 30 years after the passage of the Clean Water Act, the U.S. is still releasing over 1.3 trillion gallons/year of untreated sewage into our rivers and lakes. This problem is particularly severe in the Great Lakes. Most sewage releases happen after a rainstorm or snowmelt. At these times, water infiltrates the old, crumbling infrastructure designed to treat sewage and heads toward the wastewater treatment plants. In order to prevent the plants from flooding or the sewage from backing up into homes, it is released directly into our water, untreated or with only partial treatment. These releases are designed into sewage systems and are being exacerbated by expanding populations and the attendant increases in impervious surfaces.
Rather than cleaning up this problem, the EPA has proposed allowing sewage treatment plants to dump inadequately treated sewage into our waters during rain storms. The “blending” policy (we prefer to refer to it as a “dumping” policy) would permit sewage treatment plants to mix partially treated sewage (primary treatment with or without chlorination) with fully treated waste and dump that mixture into waters around the Great Lakes. The key policy change is that EPA is proposing to make this a routine strategy for waste “treatment”, allowed during any rain event. Currently, the Clean Water Act explicitly prohibits “the intentional diversion of waste streams from any portion of the treatment facility” under normal operating conditions (such as rainfall).
This policy not only poses a serious threat to public health (researchers at Michigan State University found that health risks increase by 100 times with sewage blending as opposed to full treatment) and the environment, but also violates the Clean Water Act. The public has reacted strongly against allowing more sewage in our waters. In 2003, when the EPA first proposed sewage dumping, state environmental agencies, public health officials and tens of thousands of citizens made comments against the policy. The Natural Resources Defense Council (and, potentially, other groups) plans to sue if the EPA continues to pursue the blending policy. The state PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) has been mobilizing regional and national opposition to the proposed policy.
Despite this opposition, the EPA is reportedly preparing to finalize the sewage blending policy, which would then pass the responsibility to Great Lakes states. If the policy is released as a “guidance” (as expected), states will be able to “opt-out”of allowing blending in their pollution permits. Given the serious repercussions for watersheds around the Great Lakes, it is important that local voices are heard in opposition to sewage blending.What the Great Lakes needs is more protection from untreated sewage, not less. We need more funding for wastewater treatment infrastructure,strict regulations on runoff from new and existing development, and strong enforcement of the Clean Water Act. Sewage “dumping”is clearly not the answer to the increasing public and environmental health risk of sewage.
One way to get involved is by contacting the EPA directly. Ben Grumbles, Assistant Administrator for Water, is the point person for blending and can be reached at 202-564-5700 or grumbles. email@example.com. At the state level, response to the Blending Proposal has varied. Michigan DEQ and Pennsylvania DEP have come out opposed to the policy and deserve recognition and support for taking this stance. The Ohio EPA is supporting (and, in several cases, implementing) the blending policy. Other state environmental agencies have largely been silent on the issue.
On the federal level, Representative Bart Stupak (Michigan) and several others have circulated a “Dear Colleague” sign-on letter, urging the EPA to drop the blending policy. Representative Stupak has also introduced a bill designed to ensure that blending is illegal. Individuals and organizations can get involved by writing Letters to the Editor and talking to reporters, editors and editorial boards of local newspapers to ensure coverage of this threat to Great Lakes water quality.
Mike Shriberg is the Great Lakes advocate for the state PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups), a network of state-based environmental and consumer advocacy organizations. He is based in Ann Arbor, MI, and can be reached at 734-662-6597 or firstname.lastname@example.org.