Aging sewer systems fouling Great Lakes
waters, report says
By John Flesher
Posted on Newsday.com May 17, 2005
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 Tuesday.
Most municipal systems in six Great Lakes states that
combine stormwater 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 report said.
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 stormwater 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 stormwater
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
Also required were long-term plans for reducing overflows
by doing things such as upgrading infrastructure to separate
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
"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 fiscal
They also urged the EPA not to let municipalities blend
fully and partially treated sewage during peak flow periods,
a policy the agency is considering. No decision has been
reached, 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
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
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., will try to attach an
amendment prohibiting blending to a spending bill this
week, a spokeswoman said.