Citizens’ Right to Know of Sewage in Local Streams

Citizens’ Right to Know of Sewage in Local Streams

By Tom Neltner, Improving Kids’ Environment

Indiana has 105 communities with combined sanitary and storm sewer systems. More than 20 billion gallons of sewage overflows from these sewers each year. It is estimated that it will cost more than $4 billion and take more than 10 years to solve the existing problem. By most indicators, Indiana trailed a majority of states in dealing with the problem of combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Improving Kids’ Environment took a multi-faceted approach to address the problem that included (1) monitoring the state’s CSO Long-Term Control Plans to ensure that the plans complied with EPA requirements and were done in a manner that actively involved the community, (2) participating in the state’s regulatory process to adopt policies and rules that would ensure that new sewer connections did not increase the overflows as plans are developed and implemented, (3) ensuring that the public is informed when a combined sewer overflow occurs so that they can take steps to protect themselves, their children, and others from the pathogens in their neighborhood streams, (and so they can more effectively push for long-term reductions in the overflows).

The problem with combined sewer overflows will not be solved overnight. It may take ten years in some cities in Indiana. Several cities have asked for 20 years. In the meantime, children continue to play in the sewage-laden streams – and parents let them – unaware of the hazards. Thanks to EPA’s nine-minimum controls, CSO communities have generally posted signs at the outfalls and have educated the public in broad terms. However, when signs are posted, they are often not at access points (usually the outfalls are difficult to get near) and the broad education efforts lack the timeliness and focus that parents need to protect children. To date, only the City of Indianapolis has agreed to establish a public notification program. However, by February, 2003, all 105 CSO communities are required to have a program in place.

What do you consider the key to your success?

The linkage of the public’s right to know and children’s health is a powerful combination that can get widespread support.

How would you outline the steps you took to organize your project in order to advise another group working on a similar project?

The project began in July 1999 as part of an overall effort to reduce the public health impacts from combined sewer overflows in Indiana’s 105 communities with combined sewer systems. During the Fall of 1999, the team met with CSO communities, activists concerned about sewage in our streams, and municipal consultants. In Fall 1999, GLAHNF provided a $1,500 one-year grant to IKE to facilitate a community right-to-know program that would provide notification to schools, parents, residents, and waterbody users when a combined sewer overflow has occurred.

In April 2000, the Indiana General Assembly passed SEA-431, which required the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board to adopt rules requiring public notification of each combined sewer overflow event. The rules had to be effective on September 1, 2002. On April 10, 2002, the Water Pollution Control Board preliminarily adopted the proposed rule over objections from the CSO communities.

What have been the results of your efforts to date?

A statutory mandate from the Indiana General Assembly to the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board to adopt a public notification rule by September 1, 2001.

A proposed rule preliminarily adopted on April 10, 2002 by the Indiana Water Pollution Control Board.

A commitment by the City of Indianapolis to implement a public notification program in May 2002.

What have the effects of this effort been on your organization’s work?

The CSO Right-to-Know effort has been a critical part of the overall effort to reduce combined sewer overflows. When implemented, it should dramatically increase the public’s understanding of the problem and build support for protecting public health from the effects of sewage in our streams.

How has the project affected your community?

It has not had an impact yet, but it stands to have a tremendous beneficial impact once the plan is in place.

What particular stumbling blocks, challenges, or defeats did you encounter?

Convincing state and local agencies of the importance of the public’s right to know was and is a major stumbling block. While elected leaders support the project, the technical bureaucracies at the state and local levels, the ones that must design and implement it, are either opposed to the concept of right-to-know and public notification or make it a low priority.

The project was dismissed by the agencies involved, finding the concept of telling the public when an overflow occurs to be a waste of time that detracts from their efforts to reduce the overflows. They do not value the public’s right-to-know and appear to resent the accountability that goes with it. Privately, they indicated that they were worried about the public backlash once the extent of the problem became well known.

How many people were involved?

(a) Initially: The team consisted of five individuals with a broader group of supporters.

(b) Finally: Same.

At least 300 people-hours were expended on the project.

How was public involvement motivated and facilitated?

The groups that participated kept their members informed. (These groups included Sierra Club – Hoosier Chapter, Save the Dunes Council, Hoosier Environmental Council, and Izaak Walton League of America – Indiana Chapter.) IKE published a regular Sewage in Our Streams newsletter containing bi-monthly updates.

How was public education a component of your program?

The goal was to build support for the rulemaking by engaging group members.

What was the primary means of communication?

Newsletters and articles written by reporters for local newspapers that were interested in the issue.

What resources were available/acquired/tapped into?

GLAHNF provided $1,500. IKE contributed $500 in supplies, materials, and travel.

What level and types of media exposure were you able to obtain and how did it affect/assist your efforts?

Several newspapers covered the issue. Seth Slabaugh, an environmental reporter for the Muncie Star-Press, took particular interest in the issue and wrote several articles. These articles prompted IDEM to restart the rulemaking process.

Other comments that you feel would be helpful to other grassroots organizations working on similar projects.

If you undertake a project to reduce CSOs, the effort will be worthwhile, but only as part of a broader effort to reduce combined sewer overflows and their public health impacts.

Improving Kids’ Environment*
Tom Neltner
5244 Carrollton Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46220
317-442-3973 317-283-6111 (fax) E-mail 

*With support of Sierra Club-Hoosier Chapter, Save the Dunes Council, Hoosier Environmental Council, and Izaak Walton League of America-Indiana Division

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