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Swimming in Filth

White House sewage plan will make water dirtier, say critics

February 19, 2004 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Mac McClelland
  Several Michigan cities have spent millions to fix their sewage plants. Traverse City just completed a $35 million expansion and modernization of its regional wastewater treatment plant.

A proposal by the Bush administration to allow public wastewater treatment plants to pour partially treated sewage into the nation’s waterways is straining ties between cities and states, raising interpretive questions about one of the nation’s core environmental statutes, and exposing startling weaknesses in the nation’s will to protect water from one of its foulest pollutants. It is also generating strong resistance from some officials in Michigan, the state with the nation’s second longest coastline and the most to lose if the rule is changed and then proves to be as damaging as its critics predict.

The Granholm administration inserted itself into the debate this month when it joined other states, including Florida, which is governed by the president’s brother, in formally opposing the Bush administration’s effort to change existing sewage treatment rules under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act. The proposal the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering would allow sewage plant operators to bypass a critical treatment step during wet weather and “blend” partially treated sewage with fully treated waste water before releasing it into rivers, lakes, and coastal waters.

The administration’s plan attracted thousands of responses before public comment closed earlier this month. National environmental organizations, led by the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, assert that the new policy would legalize a practice that has been outlawed since 1984. They add it would remove a critical legal tool that environmental enforcement agencies use to pressure cities and towns to enlarge and modernize aging, undersized treatment plants that regularly contaminate the nation’s waters.

NRDC Report Lays Out The Problem
The dimensions of the problem in Michigan and nationally, and its solution, became clearer today in a report released by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC study, “Swimming in Sewage,” found that more Americans are getting sick as a result of swimming in and drinking sewage-contaminated water, and that overflows of raw and partially treated sewage are increasing.

The report notes that the Clean Water Act helps environmental enforcement agencies compel communities to treat sewage during wet weather, especially in Michigan. Detroit, for example, modernized its sewage plant because of a court order and is now engaged with neighboring communities in a nationally significant restoration project to end combined sewer overflows and clean up the Rouge River. The project has so far cost more than $500 million.

Cyndi Roper, Michigan director of Clean Water Action, said President Bush is trying to halt the push for cleaner water. “He’s taking away the hope that some day the sewage overflows will stop,” she said.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality agrees with that assessment. Thomas Knueve, an environmental engineer with the state DEQ, responding to a question from the Great Lakes Commision, said that the blending policy “as written appears to be a step back in the environmental and public health control of discharges from waste water treatment facilities.”

Cities and sewage operating agencies, though, generally support the Bush proposal. The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, which represents 300 publicly owned plants, said the proposal clarifies standard operating practices that it called “a sound environmental alternative” to sewage backups and other messes that can occur when treatment plants are inundated during rainstorms.

Michigan Has A Big Stake in Debate
Michigan is especially vulnerable, said the NRDC study, because it is surrounded by clean, fresh water and because suburban sprawl is increasing the flow of contaminated water into treatment plants, many of which are now too small or too old to handle such large volumes.

In 2001, the state DEQ reported that 31.3 billion gallons of sewage escaped into state waters from hundreds of overflows in more than half of the state’s 83 counties. In 2002, Michigan’s Great Lakes counties experienced 209 days of beach closures or health warnings caused by sewage contamination, according to the NRDC.

Beach closures caused by high bacteria levels are common in Michigan’s urban counties, and increasingly so in small towns in rural areas. Even Traverse City, which depends on an unsullied Great Lakes shoreline for much of its economy, experienced a spate of recent, beach-closing sewage overflows.

The NRDC report criticized the Bush administration for its “resistance to action” to address a public health and environmental issue that it contends is worsening and affecting every American. “The administration is actively seeking to reduce federal government funds and oversight of sewage collection and treatment systems, scale back enforcement of existing laws, and limit public notification” when overflows occur, said Mark Dorfman, a public health expert and the report’s principal author.

Along with planning to legalize the release of partially treated sewage, the report said, the Bush administration also:

  • Halted a Clinton-era proposal that would have required treatment plant operators to eliminate raw sewage overflows and sewage agencies to publicly report overflows that may endanger public health.
  • Called for a $492 million cut in the 2005 budget for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the largest cut of any EPA program. The fund is the primary federal program for helping municipalities finance new and modernized sewage treatment plants; the President’s proposal would cut the $1.35 billion fund by 36 percent.
  • Spent just $10 million annually to monitor beaches and notify the public of hazardous fecal contamination conditions, a third of what the Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, authorizes.

U.S. and its allies respond
EPA officials have told members of Congress and reporters that they are doing all they can to clean the nation’s waters with the resources they have. The United States operates the planet’s largest plumbing system — hundreds of millions of toilets, connected to one million miles of pipes, routed to roughly 20,000 sewage treatment plants. The federal environmental agency says that taxpayers and ratepayers spent approximately $160 billion in the 1970s and 1980s to build and modernize this vast system.

But public spending for water infrastructure projects has fallen to roughly $2.5 billion annually. The EPA estimates that as much as another $1 trillion is needed to fix serious leaks — much of the system is more than 50 years old — and expand the capacity of treatment plants, which it estimates allows 1.3 trillion gallons of raw sewage spills each year. Lesser amounts back up into people’s homes — a particularly acute problem in several southeast Michigan communities.

Federal officials ask citizens, lawmakers, and the states how the government can significantly reduce sewage overflows when voters call for lower taxes and less public spending. Industry executives such as Adam Krantz, managing director of government affairs for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, also insist that the administration’s proposed changes are not a “rollback.”

“It clarifies a practice that has been accepted under the Clean Water Act,” Mr. Krantz said. “It has not been thought to be illegal. Blending is acceptable.”

Jim Hanlon, director of the EPA's Office of Wastewater Management, said all discharged water would still have to meet cleanliness standards required by the discharge permits each plant operates under. “We feel the environment and human health are being protected,” Mr. Hanlon told reporters.

Watch Out For Those Bugs
But the Natural Resources Defense Council vehemently disagrees. In 1984 the federal government outlawed “bypassing,” which it defined as a diversion around any portion of a wastewater treatment, and the EPA rejected an industry proposal to allow sewage diversions whenever the end product met regulatory standards. That rejected proposal is very similar to what the waste treatment industry seeks from the Bush administration today, said Nancy Stoner, director of the NRDC’s Clean Water Project.
“Blending is a form of bypassing,” she said. “There are exceptions for extreme rain events, but the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies wants to be able to bypass whenever it is raining, not just when an emergency occurs.”

The NRDC cites data indicating that sewage-related health problem are steadily worsening. The federal Centers for Disease Control found two years ago that the incidence of infections from recreational water use has increased over several decades, with totals now estimated to be 560,000 serious waterborne illnesses and 7.1 million mild-to-moderate infections annually. Also, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health concluded that the majority of waterborne illnesses in the U.S. are associated with heavy rains. And the Michigan DEQ said three years ago that there are very few places left in the state where it is safe to swim after a heavy rain because of sewer overflows and the large amounts of organic and toxic material pouring into waterways from the state’s sprawling concrete landscape.

In November 2003 Dr. Joan B. Rose, a microbiologist with Michigan State University, issued a report on the EPA’s proposed blending rule that said people swimming in water contaminated with partially treated sewage are 100 times more likely to get sick than people swimming in areas that receive fully treated wastewater. She has since said more recent research indicates the increased risk factor is actually 1,000.

The Bush administration’s proposal would allow plants to avoid “secondary treatment” of sewage during wet weather. But avoiding that stage treatment, said Dr. Rose, dramatically reduces the effectiveness of the next stage, which involves disinfecting the wastewater with chlorine or ultra-violet light. And adding additional chlorine to compensate for the skipped secondary treatment not only doesn’t work but also increases the chemical contamination of the discharge, according to the Lake Michigan Federation, a Chicago-based group opposed to the rule change.

Several Michigan cities have spent millions to fix their sewage plants. Traverse City just completed a $35 million modernization of its regional facility. Grand Rapids modernized its plant and eliminated 96 percent of the sewage overflows into the Grand River. Huge storm water storage basins were built in southeast Michigan; more are under construction to control overflows, including those that since 1994 have plagued Metro Beach, on Lake St. Clair. In 2002 Michigan voters approved a $1 billion bond to begin financing new and modernized treatment plants, but the money has yet to be spent, according to clean water advocates.

“Michigan has more at stake than virtually any other state because we are so heavily reliant on state beaches and tourism,” said Ms. Roper of Clean Water Action. “People are disgusted by the thought of sewage flowing into our water. They also know there are economic impacts. That's why the Bush administration's attempt to weaken sewage safeguards is so terrible.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist and editor, is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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