Have you heard the one about the Environmental Protection Agency wanting more sewage dumped in America's waterways? Unfortunately, this is no joke.

As unbelievable as it seems, the EPA is expected to finalize a policy that would allow sewer operators to legally discharge inadequately treated sewage into our waterways whenever it rains. Under current law, sewage must be fully treated except during hurricanes and other extreme weather events. The new policy would expand that narrow allowance, allowing the routine release of largely untreated sewage virtually any time it rains -- even when it is feasible to provide full treatment as required by the law.

We All Live Downstream

Americans need to know that EPA's new policy, if finalized, will allow sewage plants to bypass a crucial step -- known as "secondary treatment" -- that removes most of the bacteria, parasites and other pathogens, as well as toxic chemicals, from sewage. Not only has the Clean Water Act always required secondary treatment, but for more than 20 years EPA's own rules have made it illegal to bypass this important process. Yet, after mixing the waste with sewage that has been secondarily treated, large volumes of the partially treated (or "blended") sewage would be dumped directly into rivers and streams.

It's no wonder there is a backlash brewing, unlike any since the 2001 arsenic-in-drinking water debacle. Those opposing this policy include health advocates, environmentalists and business interests -- ranging from the American Public Health Association and the Children's Environmental Health Network to the East and Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Associations and state environmental agencies across the country. Congress has also joined the fight against sewage dumping. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of 135 members of the House of Representatives denounced the policy in a letter to EPA. (Click here for details.)

EPA's Sick Joke

The EPA's sewage dumping policy may not be a joke, but it will make people sick. Sewer authorities stand to save money from this reckless policy, but it is public health that pays the price. Every year in this country an estimated 8 million people suffer from waterborne illnesses such as hepatitis, dysentery and other diseases and the number of people getting sick will surely increase under EPA's proposed policy. Failure to fully treat sewage leads to increased amounts of e.coli, cryptosporidium, giardia and other dangerous pathogens, which will make their way into our drinking water supplies, as well as waters we use for fishing, swimming and other recreation. Those at greatest risk are the most vulnerable among us, including children, the elderly, cancer patients, and others with weakened immune systems.

Who Supports Sewage Dumping?

Although city and county officials are divided on the issue, many of them side with sewer operators because EPA's policy would let them avoid the costs of their legal obligation to fix aging, deteriorating sewer systems. Instead of supporting this ill-conceived policy, they should focus on reversing the Bush administration's repeated efforts to cut federal assistance for clean water programs. In President Bush's FY 2006 budget proposal, for instance, EPA's overall funding is slashed by nearly 6 percent -- with clean water funding facing the deep cuts for the second year in a row. The Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides low-interest loans primarily for sewage plant upgrades, suffers a one-third reduction -- even though EPA estimates that $19.4 billion is needed annually to meet this major Clean Water Act mandate. (For a state-by-state breakdown of clean water funds at risk, click here.)

Sewage dumping means that inadequately treated sewage meets clean water standards only through massive dilution, not effective treatment. Consequently, the polluted wastewater still contains large loads of pollutants that endanger public health, harm fish and shellfish populations and jeopardize downstream economies. That is the reason both the Reagan and Clinton administrations rejected EPA's approach. Sewage needs to be treated -- not just diluted -- to protect public health and the environment.

To Treat Or Not To Treat

No one can seriously believe that America faces one choice when dealing with sewage -- to dump it either raw or barely treated into our waterways.

With nearly half of America's major rivers, coastal waters, lakes and estuaries suffering from pollution, how can EPA even consider a policy that undermines the Clean Water Act by allowing tens of millions of gallons of inadequately treated sewage to be dumped into the nation's waters? Requiring full treatment for sewage, as required by the Clean Water Act, is the only way to safeguard public health.

That's why it's time for EPA to wake up and smell the sewage -- and flush its dirty dumping policy.

For more details on EPA’s sewage dumping proposal read NRDC’s backgrounder, "Stewing in Filth."