Aging U.S. Sewer Systems Threaten Public Health, New Report Finds

Bush Administration Policies Making a Bad Situation Worse

WASHINGTON (February 19, 2004) - Sewage pollution costs Americans billions of dollars every year in medical treatment, lost productivity and property damage, and Bush administration policies are compounding the problem, according to a report issued today by two national conservation groups. The report, by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and EIP (Environmental Integrity Project), describes an emerging environmental and public health crisis resulting from our nation's failure to effectively treat sewage. It found that sewage from homes, businesses and factories often never reaches a treatment plant and, when it does, too often it is not treated adequately to protect public health.

"We have a looming public health crisis on our hands that will take billions of dollars to fix," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "Fortunately we do have the technological know-how to deal with this sewage problem. What we don't have is political will. In fact, President Bush's new budget proposal dramatically slashes funding for wastewater infrastructure. At nearly $500 million, it's his biggest cut for any environmental program, and it's indefensible."

The result of the proposed cut, Stoner added, would be more beach closings, more contaminated shellfish beds, more polluted drinking water supplies, and more waterborne disease, which now sickens nearly 8 million Americans every year.

"Waterborne disease outbreaks are on the rise across the country," said Michele Merkel of EIP. "Most often, Americans get diarrhea, skin rashes or respiratory infections, but waterborne illness can threaten the lives of seniors, young children, cancer patients, and others with impaired immune systems. Now is the time to boost funding to protect Americans, not cut it."

The report, "Swimming in Sewage," features seven case studies from around the country that illustrate how exposure to sewage pollution has killed or seriously injured people and harmed local economies. The case studies are from California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

The report also identifies a number of Bush administration policies besides the new Bush budget cut proposal that exacerbate sewage pollution. Those policies include shelving a Clinton administration proposal that would have required controls to prevent raw sewage discharges, and a new proposal to allow sewer operators to discharge inadequately treated sewage in waterways when it rains.

The Environmental Protection Agency calls this latest proposal "blending" because it involves mixing treated and untreated sewage. NRDC and EIP say it is a radical departure from current treatment standards, which require full treatment for sewage except in emergency conditions such as hurricanes, and would violate the Clean Water Act. It also would threaten the health of millions of Americans. According to a recent study by Joan Rose, a microbiologist at Michigan State University and an expert on waterborne illness, the risk of contracting giardiasis from untreated parasites in blended wastewater is a thousand times higher than from fully treated wastewater.

The report concludes with recommendations to address America's sewage problem. NRDC and EIP urge the Bush administration to drop its new blending policy, establish a national clean water trust fund to assist communities to provide effective sewage treatment, set standards for Cryptosporidium and Giardia and other currently unregulated water pollutants that make people sick, and enforce Clean Water Act requirements that would prevent raw sewage discharges.