U.S. Water News Online
DETROIT -- Sewage is fouling the Great Lakes and other
waters in the region because many municipal waste treatment systems
are failing to stop overflows, environmental groups said in a report.
Most municipal systems in six Great Lakes states that combine
storm water with domestic and industrial sewage haven't met minimum
federal standards for preventing such discharges, nor have they
received approval for long-term plans to control overflows, the
The situation poses a health hazard that could get worse under
Bush administration proposals to slash funding for wastewater system
upgrades and to let sewage plants skip some stages of treatment
during heavy rains or melting snow, environmentalists said.
"Combined sewer overflows are a major threat to water quality in
the Great Lakes states," said Michele Merkel, counsel to the
Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy
organization in Washington, D.C., that conducted the study.
The findings were based on data compiled by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency and state agencies in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan,
Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
Together, they have 358 municipalities with federal permits for
combined sewers, which use the same collection system for moving
storm water and raw sewage to treatment plants. When the systems
overflow during storms, contaminated water is dumped into lakes,
rivers and oceans -- about 850 billion gallons nationwide each year.
The pollution ranges from bacteria, viruses and parasites to
metals such as mercury and lead, said Cheryl Nenn of the group
Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers.
The Great Lakes region has nearly half of the nation's 828
combined sewage systems, which tend to be located in older cities.
Most newer systems keep sewage and storm water separate.
The federal Clean Water Act required communities with combined
sewers to take nine steps by 1997, including upgrading maintenance
and operations, improving storage capacity and doing better at
notifying the public about overflows.
Also required were long-term plans for reducing overflows by doing
things such as upgrading infrastructure to separate collection
About 62 percent of the communities have failed to take the nine
steps, which the report describes as minimum efforts. About 54
percent haven't secured state approval of long-term plans and 22
percent have yet to submit plans to their states, the report said.
Only Michigan and Indiana require immediate reporting of
overflows, and government agencies across the region do poorly at
inspecting combined sewer systems and punishing violations of federal
rules, it said.
Lack of money is the biggest reason cities haven't moved more
quickly on sewer upgrades, said Joe Fivas, transportation and
environmental affairs manager for the Michigan Municipal League.
"The reality is they are underfunded and don't have the resources
to have Cadillac systems," Fivas said.
In a telephone news conference, environmentalists said some of the
required steps wouldn't be very costly. But they criticized the Bush
administration's proposal to cut a federal loan program for upgrading
treatment plants from $1.09 billion this year to $730 million in
They also urged the EPA not to give municipalities greater freedom
to blend fully and partially treated sewage during peak flow periods.
The agency has been considering a blending policy since 2003 but has
made no decision, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said.
"Blending lowers the bar for wastewater treatment," said Mike
Sriberg, Great Lakes advocate for the Public Interest Research Group.
"What we need is full treatment of waste."
The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents
metropolitan sewage treatment facilities, says blending is "an
accepted, environmentally sound practice used by the nation's public
treatment utilities for over 30 years."
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