Traditional Adversaries Unite on Plan to Protect Public from Waterborne Disease

WASHINGTON (December 19, 2005) -- The Environmental Protection Agency today announced a proposal based on a draft by a top U.S. environmental group and a national wastewater utility trade association that will protect the public from exposure to inadequately treated sewage in their drinking water and on their beaches.

The new plan is an alternative to an earlier EPA proposal that generated protest from public health and environmental organizations for being dangerously inadequate. In an unusual move, EPA responded last April by encouraging the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) to work together to solve the problem. The two organizations delivered the plan to EPA in late October.

For a copy of the NRDC-NACWA plan, click here.

"Our joint effort produced a plan that goes a long way to protect public health, and we're pleased that the EPA moved so quickly to endorse it," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "More than 7 million Americans get sick from waterborne illnesses every year. Our solution will ensure that those numbers come down."

New Plan Requires Sewer System Repairs, Public Notification

The original EPA proposal would have allowed wastewater facilities to discharge inadequately treated sewage into waterways virtually anytime it rains.

The much-improved alternative negotiated by NRDC and NACWA will require wastewater facilities to upgrade and repair their leaky sewage systems, and fully treat sewage unless EPA or a state environmental agency determines there is no feasible way to do so. It also will require facility operators to notify the public and environmental agencies any time they discharge inadequately treated sewage.

"This plan will make sure that treatment facilities warn the public when they dump sewage into local waterways," said Stoner. The plan also will commit the EPA to take enforcement actions against sewer authorities that fail to properly maintain or upgrade their facilities.

Inadequately Treated Sewage Poses Significant Threat

Health experts estimate that there are 7.1 million mild-to-moderate cases and 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases of infectious waterborne diseases in the United States annually. Many of these cases are caused by exposure to sewage.

Untreated sewage contains a variety of dangerous pathogens, including 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 hepatitis and dysentery. Small children, the elderly, cancer patients, and others with impaired immune systems are the most likely to get sick.

Besides the obvious health threat, inadequately treating sewage has long-term environmental and economic consequences. Sewage in waterways kills fish and destroys shellfish beds. And it is the second largest known cause of U.S. beach closures and advisories every year.

"Our plan, which EPA adopted today, not only will help keep Americans healthy, it will help keep our economy healthy," Stoner said. "And it shows that we can work together to get the job done."