Key elected officials from around the Lake Michigan basin are “just saying no” to a recent proposal from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that would allow the discharge of untreated municipal sewage into the open waters of the Great Lakes.
U.S. EPA’s proposed new dumping policy would allow treatment plants to bypass the cleansing procedures that make sewage effluent safer for discharge into public waterways. Facilities would be able to divert sewage around secondary treatment measures and blend the sewage with treated water prior to discharge, resulting in the dumping of waste.
Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn joined the Lake Michigan Federation in denouncing the policy at a February press conference on the Chicago shoreline. Quinn attacked U.S. EPA’s “Blending Sewage Policy” for violating the nation’s most important water quality law: the Clean Water Act. “This Orwellian name is an attempt to mask the toxic reality of the proposal, which threatens water quality and human health,” he said. Prompted by a recent report pointing to human sewage as a source of beach contamination in Door County, U.S. Representative Mark Green has also requested that U.S. EPA abandon the proposal. In January, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley urged the federal government to fund improvements of municipal sewage infrastructure that eliminate the need to discharge raw sewage rather than pursue a misguided policy.
While the policy purports to be for use only in times of severe storms when municipal sewers become overloaded, it could in fact be implemented any time it rains. Under current law, treatment plants are allowed to divert sewage, but only under limited circumstances. In effect, the new policy makes dumping the rule, rather than the exception.
The Federation, which is seeking bi-partisan opposition to the measure, has been working against the policy in the nation’s capital. “This policy is unenforceable, a pollution permit writer’s worst nightmare, and a dream come true for recalcitrant municipalities,” said Federation board president Dale Bryson at a January briefing of some 60 congressional staff members.
The EPA justifies the proposed policy, arguing it will provide relief to treatment plants during heavy storms while still requiring compliance with water quality standards. However, current standards don’t necessarily protect against the discharge of untreated municipal sewage into charge of viruses, parasites and pathogens from treatment plants. The proposed policy also relieves treatment plants from upgrading their facilities and making necessary repairs.
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