EPA Issues Wet Weather Policy Written By Enviros, Water Utilities

WASHINGTON, DC, December 19, 2005 (ENS) - Heavy rain and snow storms can overwhelm municipal wastewater treatment systems, causing managers to bypass secondary treatment, discharging inadequately treated sewage full of pathogens. Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to solve the problem based on a joint draft by a U.S. environmental group and a national wastewater utility trade association.

The new plan is an alternative to an earlier EPA proposal that generated protest from public health and environmental organizations for being inadequate. In an unusual move, the 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 the EPA in late October.

NACWA and NRDC representatives were present this afternoon when Benjamin Grumbles, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assistant administrator for water, made the announcement at EPA Headquarters in Washington.

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Heavy stormwater runoff can be too much for aging wastewater systems to handle. (Photo courtesy Vermont DEC)
"Our peak flow policy puts a premium on stopping leaks and spills, improving treatment, and increasing public oversight," said Grumbles. "I commend environmentalists and utilities for working to find common ground on a clean water solution that doesn't rely on dilution."

"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 seven million Americans get sick from waterborne illnesses every year. Our solution will ensure that those numbers come down."

"This is a tremendous success for the nation’s clean water future and shows that progress can be made on tough issues when we work to find collaborative solutions to difficult problems,” said NACWA Executive Director Ken Kirk. “EPA’s release today demonstrates that sound policy can result when organizations stay focused on the critical mission of improving water quality and protecting the public health.

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

The 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.

Many municipalities currently have situations in which peak flows during severe storms exceed the treatment capacity of existing secondary treatment units. In these situations, wet weather flows are sometimes diverted around secondary treatment units and then either recombined with flows from the secondary treatment units or discharged directly into waterways from the treatment plant.

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Storm sewer in Fairfax County, Virginia (Photo courtesy Fairfax County)
The proposal only applies to those diversions as they are recombined, and as they occur in separate sanitary sewer systems. Peak wet weather diversions in combined sewer systems are already regulated in a similar way under the 1994 Combined Sewer Overflow Policy.

NACWA, a national trade association representing hundreds of the nation's publicly owned wastewater treatment utilities, says the EPA’s proposal would benefit the nation’s water quality by minimizing the reliance of clean water facilities on peak wet weather flow diversions as a long term management approach.

NACWA members serve the majority of the sewered population in the United States and collectively treat and reclaim over 18 billion gallons of wastewater every day.

NACWA believes that the proposal’s enhanced public notice provisions will improve the understanding and knowledge of peak wet weather flow diversion practices at public utilities.

"This plan will make sure that treatment facilities warn the public when they dump sewage into local waterways," said Stoner of NRDC, which claims 1.2 million members and online activists. The plan also will commit the EPA to take enforcement actions against sewer authorities that fail to properly maintain or upgrade their facilities.

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.

The proposed policy encourages municipalities to make investments in ongoing maintenance and capital improvements to improve their systems' long term performance.

The policy outlines the limited circumstances when these management techniques can be used and how they must be documented in National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. The policy also stipulates that all NPDES permit limits must be met at all times.

"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."

The draft policy will appear shortly in the Federal Register with a 30 day comment period. NACWA says it is confident the public comments will demonstrate broad support for EPA’s swift finalization of the policy.

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