EPA Proposal Allowing Water Treatment Plants to Discharge Partially Treated Sewage Threatens Public Health, says NRDC

WASHINGTON (November 3, 2003) -- The Environmental Protection Agency today issued a "draft guidance" that would allow water treatment plants to dump partially treated sewage in waterways. This new policy, lifting the requirement that facilities fully treat sewage, would allow more viruses and parasites in the water Americans drink and swim in, according to NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council).

"EPA had a clear choice, either continue to require treatment plants to clean up sewage, or allow them to dump it virtually untreated into our drinking water supplies," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "It made the wrong choice. More Americans would get sick from waterborne illnesses because of this indefensible -- and illegal -- policy change."

The new guidance would significantly change what is called the "bypass" regulation, which now allows sewage treatment plants to forego, or bypass, treating sewage before discharging it into waterways only when there is no feasible alternative and it is necessary to prevent personal injury or property damage, such as during a hurricane. The new guidance would allow sewage bypasses even when feasible alternatives exist, such as adding more capacity to handle sewage or storing it until it can be fully treated. The guidance proposal, says NRDC, would violate the Clean Water Act.

Traditional secondary sewage treatment, which has been the industry standard since the early 20th century, involves a three-step process: solids removal, biological treatment and disinfection. The proposed policy would allow facilities to bypass the second step and "blend" partially treated sewage with fully treated wastewater before discharging it into waterways.

But it is the second step of the process, the biological treatment unit, which removes most of the pathogenic organisms and other pollutants from wastewater. Biological treatment is effective because it uses microbial digestion to render pathogens and other pollutants harmless. Neither solids removal nor disinfection effectively removes viruses or parasites, such as cryptopiridium and giardia, and it has limited effectiveness in removing bacteria. In addition, the higher levels of chlorine needed to kill bacteria without biological treatment create cancer-causing disinfection byproducts that have been linked to miscarriages, birth defects and other reproductive problems.

"The Bush administration's proposed policy change is upside down," said Stoner. "It should require treatment plants to upgrade their aging sewer systems and help them out with more federal funding. Instead, it cut funding and now is proposing to allow facilities to discharge viruses and bacteria into our water."


Pathogens are disease-producing microorganisms that are naturally present in sewage. They include bacteria (such as E coli), viruses (such as hepatitis A), protozoa (such as Cryptosporidium and Giardia) and helminth worms. The pathogens in sewage can cause illnesses ranging from diarrhea and vomiting and respiratory infections to giardiasis, cryptosporidiosis, hepatitis and dysentery. EPA has found that discharges of inadequately treated sewage spread pathogens and disease in U.S. waterways. Experts estimate that there are 7.1 million mild-to-moderate cases and 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases of infectious waterborne disease in the United States annually.

While most people recover from the diseases spread by waterborne pathogens in sewage, they can threaten the lives of young children, the elderly, cancer patients, and other people with compromised immune systems.


Allowing polluters to discharge inadequately treated sewage into our nation's waters would have adverse, long-term environmental and economic consequences. More sewage in our waterways would close beaches, kill fish and destroy shellfish beds, which would hurt the fishing and tourism industries. Sewage is the second largest known cause of beach closures in the U.S. every year.


The Clean Water Act requires all wastewater to meet secondary treatment standards prior to discharge. Blended sewage does not meet current statutory or regulatory requirements, and EPA has taken several enforcement actions against sewer operators in which the agency has clearly stated in writing that blending violates the Clean Water Act.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.