Policy Rollback Raises Threat of Waterborne Illness, Disease for Millions

WASHINGTON (December 9, 2004) -- Millions of Americans will face an increased threat of bacteria, viruses and parasites in their water thanks to a new federal policy allowing sewer operators to dump inadequately treated sewage into the nation's waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency's new plan, which reverses a current rule requiring sewer operators to fully treat their waste in all but the most extreme circumstances, will allow operators to routinely dump sewage anytime it rains. The EPA is expected to issue the policy sometime in the next few weeks.

"This new policy will expose millions of Americans to disease-causing parasites, viruses and bacteria in our drinking water and in waterways where we fish and swim," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). "More Americans -- especially the elderly, very young infants, and those with weakened immune systems -- will get sick, and more of them will die."

For the last 50 years standard sewage treatment has involved a two-step process: solids removal, and biological treatment to kill bacteria, viruses and parasites. The new policy allows facilities to routinely bypass the second step and "blend" partially treated sewage with fully treated wastewater before discharging it into waterways. (Some treatment facilities include a third step in which they use chlorine to disinfect sewage, but disinfection does not kill viruses and many other pathogens.)

Currently sewer operators are allowed to blend partially treated sewage only in extreme cases, such as hurricanes and tropical storms, and when there is no feasible alternative, such as adding more capacity to handle sewage or storing it until it can be fully treated. The new policy will allow plants to dump partially treated sewage anytime it rains or snows.

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. Even with the current, stronger sewage treatment standard, 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.

A November 2003 NRDC-commissioned study by Michigan State University biologist Joan B. Rose concluded that the EPA's new policy would pose a significant threat to public health. For example, Dr. Rose, an expert in water pollution microbiology and waterborne diseases, determined that "[t]he risks associated with swimming in waters receiving the blended flows were … 100 times greater than if the wastewater were fully treated."

The Bush administration's fiscal year 2005 budget called for cutting $492 million from the Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund, which loans money to states to help pay for sewage treatment. Congress ultimately cut $250 million from the fund. Stoner said substantially more funding is needed to adequately protect the public. "The federal government should require treatment plants to upgrade their aging sewer systems and help them out with more funding," she said. "Instead, it cut funding and now will allow these facilities to discharge viruses and bacteria directly into our water."

Besides the obvious threat to public health, allowing inadequately treated sewage in our nation's waters will have dire long-term environmental and economic consequences, said Stoner. More sewage in our waterways will close beaches, kill fish and destroy shellfish beds, which will hurt the fishing and tourism industries. Sewage is the second largest known cause of U.S. beach closures and advisories every year.

The new policy also is illegal, Stoner added. The Clean Water Act requires sewer operators to fully treat sewage before discharging it except in an emergency. Blended sewage does not meet this requirement, and the EPA has taken enforcement actions against sewer operators in which the agency has clearly stated in writing that blending violates the Clean Water Act.

"The Bush administration claims that the 'blended' sewage will meet all Clean Water Act standards, but that's not good enough to protect the public," Stoner said. "In fact, the law does not specifically cover many dangerous viruses and parasites, but biological treatment -- the step the administration is making optional whenever it rains -- removed those contaminants. Now they will wind up in our water."

Public health officials, state environmental officials, shellfishermen, marina operators, and tens of thousands of citizens have urged the EPA to drop its sewage-dumping plan. Among those weighing in against the proposal were state environmental agencies in Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and Washington, the American Public Health Association, the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers, several county public health agencies, and the Children's Environmental Health Network. In addition, 62 U.S. representatives have called on the administration to abandon the proposal. (For a sample of public comments on the proposal, click here.)