Energy & Environment

Cities Take the Sewer Plunge

When it comes to wastewater, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn't hesitating to tell local governments what they have to do.
by | August 2002

When it comes to wastewater, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn't hesitating to tell local governments what they have to do.

Municipal wastewater agencies have spent billions of dollars on new sewer lines and improved wastewater-treatment plants to comply with standards that EPA drafts and imposes. EPA regulates most municipal pollution sources by requiring local government agencies to get federal discharge permits--the same as factories, power plants and other indus-trial facilities. Now, federal engineers and lawyers are pushing local governments hard to fix leaky or overloaded systems that spill raw sewage from time to time and violate federal water pollution standards.

In April, for instance, Baltimore agreed to pay a $600,000 EPA fine and spend $940 million over the next 14 years to correct defective sewer pipes and connections that discharge untreated wastes into the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore's chronic overflows have released more than 100 million gallons of raw sewage over the past six years, and addressing the problem will force governments to double the rates for 1.6 million users of the regional sewage system. "We're not the first city to be whacked by the federal government on this, and we won't be the last," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said when announcing the settlement with EPA and U.S. Department of Justice environmental lawyers.

Around the country, EPA is using its water-quality authority to force localities to raise billions more dollars to make sure that their treatment systems can handle surges of sewage in even the foulest weather. After spending $1.7 billion to upgrade its system to meet federal standards, Cleveland's regional sewer district expects it will have to commit another $1 billion or so to prevent overflows from antiquated combined sewers that collect both sewage and stormwater running into city streets. The mixed streams both funnel through treatment plants; rainstorms or sudden snowmelts can overwhelm the system, carrying raw sewage into the Cuyahoga River and its tributaries. EPA has begun using its enforcement powers to get tough with mayors and city councils that balk at the cost of remedying the problem.

More than 700 U.S. cities and towns still rely on combined sewer systems built as long as a century ago--before sewage was handled separately and treated before being discharged. In 1994, EPA approved new rules for combined sewer systems that will require local governments to correct the problem at a cost of at least $45 billion, and probably much more. It would be prohibitively expensive to tear up streets to install completely separate systems, so most cities are building huge underground tunnels to collect and hold stormwater surges and then release the water slowly when treatment plants can handle the load.

Atlanta, for instance, plans to bore three tunnels a combined 20 miles long, 100 feet beneath the city's streets. The tanks could store 300 million gallons of tainted water, then funnel it into two new treatment plants. Atlanta's average wastewater bill is expected to climb from $31 to about $65 a month to pay for the system. Threatened with $275 million in EPA fines, the Pittsburgh regional sewage system is working on a $3 billion project. EPA and the U.S. Department of Justice have also reached settlements that order Boston, New Orleans, San Diego, Honolulu, Miami, Cincinnati and Mobile, Alabama, to correct chronic sewage overflows.

What's more, EPA is following up rules for combined-sewer overflows with new regulations requiring local governments to curb overflows from aging sanitary sewers that aren't connected to stormwater systems but nonetheless are springing leaks or can be inundated by surges after rainstorms. That has become a problem for cities that grew rapidly after World War II and used brick or unreinforced concrete pipes that are now prone to corrode or collapse, creating blockages that back up into homes or spill onto streets. To correct its overflows, Oklahoma City has begun replacing 1 percent of its 2,200 miles of sewer lines every year with more durable PVC plastic pipe. Fairfax County, Virginia, has reduced overflows by two-thirds through stepped up monitoring, maintenance and repairs to its sewage lines.

In addition, EPA requires municipalities with 100,000 or more residents to get federal permits for the runoff they discharge from streets into separate stormwater-collection systems. They must devise plans to control the contaminants that run off the surface into the system. A pending set of regulations for smaller communities will set forth best management practices they'll be required to adopt to limit polluted runoff.

Mayors contend that EPA ignores what meeting all those requirements will cost the ratepayers whose monthly bills must pay off construction loans and cover operating expenses of upgraded sewage systems. In the 1970s, the federal government picked up 80 percent of the cost of the first round of sewage-treatment improvements through direct grants, but now it offers low-interest loans that sewage systems must pay back. That is reviving local officials' complaints from a few years ago about unfunded environmental mandates. As Baltimore's O'Malley contends, "Unfortunately, our federal government is a lot better at sending lawyers to cities than they are in sending dollars."

In some cases, EPA has agreed to stretch out deadlines for controlling sewage overflows. Three years ago, EPA's Boston regional office negotiated a compromise two-step program for correcting combined-sewer overflows into the Merrimack River from Manchester, New Hampshire. The city agreed to spend $52.4 million over 10 years on projects that will capture 93 percent of wet-weather overflows. EPA and the city will monitor the improvements during that time before settling on whatever additional steps will be necessary. As part of the deal, Manchester is also investing $5.6 million on preserving rare and sensitive swamps, controlling streambank erosion and other related projects.

EPA has made tentative moves toward linking sewer controls to its efforts to deal with upstream contamination from septic tanks, animal feedlots and other "non-point" sources. On the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, for instance, the New England regional office launched a coordinated Clean Charles 2005 program that has brought citizens groups into a project to make the river suitable for swimming. The program used traditional permit enforcement to target combined sewer overflows and industrial discharges. But intensive monitoring by volunteers also found that part of the river's pollution was coming from sewage pipes clogged with grease and from illegal hookups that piped raw sewage straight into stormwater drains.

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