Great Lakes Fouled With Mix of Storm Water and Sewage

WASHINGTON, DC, May 23, 2005 (ENS) - A toxic soup of storm water mixed with billions of gallons of raw human waste and other untreated sewage is entering streams, rivers and the Great Lakes in six upper Midwest states, finds a new report issued by a coalition of environmental groups. The failure of Great Lakes states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address sewers overflowing with this mixture poses a threat to public health and could degrade upper Midwest waterways for decades, the coalition warns.

Combined sewer systems carry both storm water and raw sewage to a wastewater treatment plant through a single collection system. During heavy rains, the sewage collection systems are overloaded and dump of a mix of pathogens, toxins, and other contaminants directly into Great Lakes and the rivers and streams flowing into the lakes.

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Lake Superior's South Shore, Wisconsin (Photo by Dave Hansen courtesy Minnesota Extension Service)
On behalf of the coalition the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) based in Washington, DC studied municipalities in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Report author Michele Merkel, counsel to the Environmental Integrity Project, said, "If we don't deal with the combined sewer overflow problem, the Great Lakes will become the Not-So-Great Lakes. The Bush administration needs to reverse its proposed cuts to federal funding and step up enforcement."

Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Advocate for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), said, "Sewage overflows are a major public health threat yet only two states - Michigan and Indiana - require real-time reporting of these hazardous releases.

Residents in states that lack a reliable warning system may be unknowingly exposed to sewage. Every city and town that releases raw or partially treated sewage is supposed to provide public notification, yet many are ignoring this requirement.

Great Lakes Public Interest Group (PIRG) and Ohio PIRG joined Friends of the Chicago River, Michigan Clean Water Action, Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers and the Environmental Integrity Project in issuing the report,"Backed Up: Cleaning Up Combined Sewer Systems in the Great Lakes."

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee riverkeeper with Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers, said, "Combined sewer overflows are a bona fide threat both to the environment and humans. Among the principal pollutants in CSOs are microbial pathogens and toxics, such as oil and pesticides that wash from streets into the sewer system during a rain or snowmelt event."

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Signs like this are increasingly common across the Great Lakes region. (Photo courtesy City of St. Joseph, Missouri)
"Microbial pathogens include hundreds of different types of bacteria, viruses, and parasites," said Nenn. "They are easily transported by water and can cause disease in fish and shellfish and illness in humans. Toxics present in CSO discharges include metals - such as cadmium, lead, mercury, silver, and zinc - and synthetic organic chemicals - such as PCBs and pesticides - which pose serious threats to human health."

The coalition says at the very least citizens around the Great Lakes deserve to know when their water is being contaminated with sewage. In other states, the most widely used method of public notice is to post permanent identification signs at combined sewer overflow outfalls, but in the six state studied that notice was often not given.

"Lack of notice about sewage spills and what they mean leaves the public exposed to unnecessary risk," the coalition said. "Neighborhoods may not be aware that the nearby river or lakefront is overloaded with bacteria and unsafe to enter."

More than three out of five of the municipalities in the Great Lakes states do not meet minimum Clean Water Act requirements for combined sewer overflows, the report shows.

According to a review of EPA data conducted by the Environmental Integrity Project, only about 38 percent of the communities comply with the minimal Clean Water act requirements. In some cases the compliance rates are even worse.

For example, 2001 data compiled by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission showed that at least nine out of the 10 facilities that discharge to the Ohio River had not fully implemented basic controls.

Sixty-two percent of the municipalities are not meeting the basic maintenance or reporting requirements for combined sewer overflows, and 54 percent do not have approved long-term plans required by law for upgrading sewage collection or treatment systems, the researchers found.

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Sewage mixed with storm water can cause health problems. (Photo courtesy Save Narragansett Bay)
The researchers found that more than half of Great Lakes municipalities do not have long-term plans in place to clean up the problem of combined sewer overflows. A total of 54 percent of the towns and cities still do not have approved long-term control plans. Twenty-two percent of these municipalities have not submitted the plans to the states for approval.

Indiana has approved only 17 of the 107 long-term plans required in the state, while Michigan has approved 38 out of 42 plans. The coalition says, "Because the planning process is truly long-term, and may require up to 20 years to complete, the backlog in development and approval of plans could leave the Great Lakes exposed to raw sewage from CSOs for decades to come."

Chicago and 51 older municipalities in Cook County have combined sewer systems and a wastewater system which was designed to treat two billion gallons per day. They are in the midst of implementing a long term plan to deal with the five billion gallons of rainwater that runs off during a single rainstorm that drops about one inch of rain.

Under the Tunnel and Reservoir Project plan, 109 miles of huge underground tunnels would be burrowed under the city of Chicago to intercept combined sewer overflow and convey it to large storage reservoirs. After the storm had subsided, the overflow could then be conveyed to treatment plants for cleaning before going to a waterway.

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Engineers stand in the TARP Mainstream storm water tunnel under Chicago. (Photo courtesy MWRDGC)
The EPA provided nearly 75 percent of the funding for this project. The first 31 miles of tunnel extending from Wilmette on the north shore to Hodgkins just southwest of Chicago were completed and put into service in 1985.

One of the largest rock tunnel bores on record, the TARP Mainstream tunnel is 35 feet in diameter, bored in limestone rock 240 to 350 feet below ground, and holds one billion gallons of water.

Nearly 20 years later the water quality of the Chicago River, the Calumet River and other waterways has improved. Game fish have returned, marinas and riverside restaurants are flouishing, and waterfront real estate values are higher. But more needs to be done before the Chicago area has storm water under control.

Todd Main, director of policy and planning with Friends of the Chicago River, said, "Our goal is to make the Chicago River fishable and swimmable by 2020 and to do that we need dedicated leadership to secure the local, state, and national funding necessary to complete Phase Two of the Tunnel and Reservoir Project. We must also expand the use of green infrastructure in the Chicagoland area to control and filter storm water."

The report found that across the region enforcement of combined sewage overflow controls is weak. The U.S. EPA and Great Lakes state governments completed only 66 inspections of combined sewer overflow systems in 2004, primarily in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

In the four years prior to 2004, the states reported only 35 inspections across 358 CSO communities. While EPA has brought a number of cases in court, only three states - Michigan, Ohio and Indiana - have initiated any enforcement action against municipalities violating Clean Water Act CSO requirements.

Since the Bush administration last week shelved a controversial plan that would have relaxed existing sewage treatment regulations and allowed the discharge of blended sewage and storm water, the coalition is relieved of that concern, but the federal government needs to provide funding to help states and municipalities offset the cost of sewer upgrades, including projects to phase out combined sewer overflows.

But instead, the coalition worries, the Bush administration has proposed cutting the budget for the EPA's Clean Water State Revolving Fund by about $370 million in its budget request for Fiscal Year 2006.

States and municipalities typically finance over 85 percent of wastewater control costs themselves, so even if federal cuts do not take place, the coalition warns, increases in local sewer rates may be required in some municipalities to cover the costs of controlling combined sewer overflows.

For a full copy of "Backed Up: Cleaning Up Combined Sewer Systems in the Great Lakes," log on to: http://www.environmentalintegrity.org.