It's a safe bet that Americans want less -- not more -- sewage in the water they drink, the rivers where they fish and the beaches and lakes where they swim. Yet more sewage is what they can expect if the Environmental Protection Agency gets its way. Congress is poised to dive into this debate next week.
As early as next Tuesday, May 17, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on EPA's budget for the next fiscal year. At that time, members will have the opportunity to support an amendment to the Interior/EPA Appropriations bill -- sponsored by Reps. Clay Shaw (R-FL) and Bart Stupak (D-MI) -- that would block EPA from finalizing its sewage dumping proposal. A vote in favor of this "Stop Sewage Dumping" amendment represents a vote for clean water.
"Everyone lives downstream of somebody's sewage treatment," says Nancy Stoner, clean water director at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "So we all face a threat to our health, economy and environment if EPA lets wastewater plants routinely discharge largely untreated sewage into our lakes, rivers and streams."
When It Rains, It Pours -- Sewage
Every year, more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage flow into America's waterways. The EPA is proposing a policy that would only worsen the nation's severe sewage problem.
Under EPA's so-called blending policy, sewer operators would be able to routinely mix barely treated sewage with fully treated sewage before discharging it downstream. This practice currently is only allowed during extreme weather events when it is not possible for a system to fully treat all of the sewage. But EPA wants to allow sewage dumping to occur virtually any time it rains, even when full treatment is feasible. Sewer operators could then bypass secondary treatment, the crucial step that removes most of the viruses, parasites and other pathogens, as well as toxic chemicals, from sewage. All that would be required under EPA's new policy is primary treatment, which merely screens out the solids from the sewage.
"We're actually just increasing the concentration of contaminant in that flow when we blend," explained Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University professor, in a story that aired on NPR's "All Things Considered" on April 15. "And we should not be fooling ourselves or the community that we're actually protecting public health."
Dilution is Not the Solution
Also interviewed for that NPR story was Ben Grumbles, EPA's water chief, who said, "The basic point, which is at the heart and soul of the Clean Water Act, is that dilution is not the solution to pollution; that you need to treat the sewage. Blending isn't the solution."
Mr. Grumbles is exactly right, but his statement contradicts his own agency's sewage dumping proposal. The policy would allow wastewater from sewage treatment plants to meet discharge standards through massive dilution rather than effective treatment. Even the Reagan administration's EPA rejected letting wastewater facilities dilute instead of fully treat the sewage flowing through their plants. But now EPA is pushing the same policy, one that would cause more people to get sick, lead to more beach closures, damage the shellfishing industry, raise treatment costs for drinking water, harm fish and wildlife, and kill coral reefs.
Moreover, the EPA is proceeding despite not even knowing the potential risks to public health or the environment. According to a May 6 story in Inside EPA, top agency officials last week told the sewage industry that EPA's own experts have concerns about the agency's blending policy because states have not yet adopted water quality standards for viruses, parasites or other pathogens that can cause waterborne illness. Those EPA officials also acknowledged that, because existing state water standards for other pollutants are typically based on low-flow conditions, the standards may not be protective enough when wastewater facilities dump partially treated sewage when it rains.
The story goes on to say that Mr. Grumbles intends to make pathogen research a top priority at the agency. However, those initial studies are not expected to be completed until 2007. This begs the question: Why would the EPA open the sewage floodgates without first determining the potential risks to public health and the environment?
Treat, Don't Retreat
Every year in this country millions of people suffer from hepatitis, gastroenteritis and other waterborne illnesses. Allowing more sewage -- barely treated -- to be dumped in our waterways likely would lead to increased amounts of e.coli, cryptosporidium, giardia and other dangerous pathogens. These contaminants likely would make their way into our drinking water supplies, as well as the waters we use for fishing, swimming and other recreation. Those at greatest risk are the most vulnerable among us -- children, the elderly, cancer patients, and others with weakened immune systems.
In addition to public health concerns, the economic implications of sewage dumping should not be overlooked. For example, the National Fisheries Institute, the national trade association for the seafood industry, blasted EPA's "poorly conceived public policy," saying that it could "significantly and negatively impact shellfish operations" around the country. (That April 27 letter is available upon request.)
According to a May 3 story in the Seattle Times, Washington Department of Health officials criticized EPA's proposal for ignoring "the special needs" of the state's $100 million industry that provides two-thirds of the nation's shellfish. More sewage flowing into Puget Sound, they say, means less harvesting of clams, oysters and mussels. "It's ridiculous to me that we're even talking about this," the story quotes Ian Jefferds, whose family owns a local shellfish business. "Isn't it time we put less [sewage] into our waters -- not more?"
More information on EPA's sewage dumping proposal is available here.