EPA Abandons Sewage Blending Plan

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, May 19, 2005 (ENS) - The Bush administration shelved a controversial plan today that would have relaxed existing sewage treatment regulations and allowed the discharge of large volumes of partially treated wastewater into lakes and rivers across the nation.

The announcement signaled a rare victory for environmentalists, who contend the policy would roll back the Clean Water Act and harm public health and the environment.

“This decision is a critical step toward stopping sewage from being released in waterways around the country,” said Christy Leavitt, clean water advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “The EPA should take this opportunity to further protect our waters by ensuring and enforcing full treatment for all sewage.”

The proposal, announced in November 2003, centered on a practice known as “blending,” which allows operators to mix fully treated sewage with partially treated sewage and storm water and bypass secondary treatment, releasing the blend directly into the environment.

Primary units at sewage treatment plants separate and remove solids from wastewater. Secondary units, also known as biological treatment units, break down the remaining solids and kill most of the viruses, parasites and other pathogens present in sewage.

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The nation’s waterways already carry a heavy burden – some 850 billion gallons of raw sewage flow into lakes, rivers and streams every year. (Photo courtesy DCGHD)
The blending practice allows operators to divert wastewater around secondary treatment units and blend it with treated sewage.

The mixture is then disinfected and discharged into the nation’s waterways.

The practice is currently permitted only when there is no feasible alternative, usually when large volumes of wastewater – often storm water caused by heavy rainfall or snowmelt - exceed the capacity of secondary treatment units.

The Bush administration’s proposal would have allowed wastewater treatment plants to use the practice virtually any time it rains.

Proponents defend the proposal on the grounds that the blended sewage must still meet federal and state discharge standards and that fully treating wastewater during peak flows is too costly.

Critics contend the plan violates the Clean Water Act and note that many states have not yet adopted water quality standards for viruses, parasites or other pathogens that can cause waterborne illness and that are more prevalent in partially treated wastewater.

Recent research conducted at Michigan State University found that the public health risk from blended wastewater is some 100 to 1,000 times greater than from fully treated sewage.

Ben Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for the Office of Water, said that after a review of 98,000 public comments and several congressional hearings, the agency determined blending is “not a long-term solution.”

"Our goal is to reduce overflows and increase treatment of wastewater to protect human health and the environment,” Grumbles said in a prepared statement.

Grumbles said the EPA would continue to work with all stakeholders to review other alternatives.

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA), which represents metropolitan sewerage agencies, said it was disappointed with the EPA’s decision.

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Wastewaster treatment plant on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo courtesy USGS)
“Unfortunately, there have been many mischaracterizations of the blending issue,” said John Thibodeau, a spokesman for NACWA.

The proposal recognized that “blending has been a long-accepted practice and remains a key tool for many municipalities to ensure maximum treatment to the maximum volume of wet weather flow,” said Thibodeau.

Finding a solution that satisfies treatment plant operators, environmentalists and public health advocates appears to be a difficult task.

Upgrading sewage treatment plants to handle peak flows is one alternative that could please both sides, but the cost is a major concern.

The Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accounting Office and the EPA estimate there is a national funding gap of some $1 trillion for water infrastructure.

Environmental groups were not the only ones opposed to the plan – state environmental agencies from at least seven states, as well as public health officials, fishing groups and some 135 members of Congress called on the EPA to withdraw the proposal.

Today’s announcement came as the House of Representatives prepared to consider a bipartisan amendment to the EPA’s appropriations bill that would block the agency from spending any money to implement the blending proposal.

Congressman Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat and cosponsor of the amendment, said the blending proposal would have “turned the clock back on 30 years of water protection.”

The amendment was adopted by a voice vote after Congressman Charles Taylor, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said he was willing to accept the amendment.

"The overwhelming support for this amendment in the House shows that keeping sewage out of our waters is a no-brainer," said Betsy Otto, senior policy advisor for American Rivers. "Congress now needs to fill in the other half of the equation and provide adequate financial resources to communities to assure clean water for everyone."

Congressman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat who co-sponsored the amendment and a companion bill "Save Our Waters from Sewage Act," said in a floor statement that passing the amendment was essential to ensure that the EPA does not propose a similar policy in the future.