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Dumping may be worse than reported
New study says MMSD understated numbers
By Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The Milwaukee sewerage district has grossly underreported the volume of raw sewage it has dumped since completion of the deep tunnel system nearly a decade ago, according to a consultant's study.

During three rainstorms that prompted dumping, the reported volumes were off by an average of 72%, according to the study by Milwaukee-based Triad Engineering Inc. The revised dumping tally for those storms should be nearly 4.9 billion gallons instead of the 2.9 billion gallons that the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has reported to the state, the study said.

The new study does not give a corrected dumping figure for the entire decade since the deep tunnel system was completed. The tunnel system was originally touted as the cure for dumping. However, if the district underreported all its overflows by the same 72% margin, the revised overall dumping tally would jump from about 13 billion gallons to more than 22 billion gallons.

That finding could mean a much larger quantity of pollutants has been dumped into Lake Michigan than MMSD has previously acknowledged, said John Hoops, a civil engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hoops reviewed the Triad study at the request of the Journal Sentinel.

"Based on what Triad did, you are talking 22 billion" gallons of sewage dumped, Hoops said. "That seems pretty significant in terms of the (pollution) loading to the streams and eventually Lake Michigan."

MMSD Commission Chairman Dennis Grzezinski said he hadn't seen the Triad study, but wasn't overly concerned about the findings.

"It doesn't shock me because there isn't any more pollution in it," said Grzezinski, an environmental lawyer. He reasoned that in a big storm, the amount of wastes flushed into combined sewers remains the same, while the amount of storm water increases. That means whether 1.5 billion gallons or 2.4 billion gallons are dumped in a big storm, the pollutant load remains constant, according to Grzezinski.

Looked at combined sewers

The study, commissioned by MMSD, looked at dumping from sewers in older parts of Milwaukee and Shorewood that carry both sanitary waste and storm water. Other parts of the metro area have separate storm and sanitary sewer lines. MMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer said Tuesday he doubted the accuracy of the Triad study, which included a review of local water pollution and cost about $500,000.

"Even though that report is final, we haven't accepted the results yet," Shafer said in an interview. A computer expert hired by MMSD to review the Triad study already has found "glitches" in Triad's work, Shafer said.

The formulas used by Triad will be retested using a corrected program to find out if the much larger dumping totals are wrong, he said. If that test still shows massive underreporting by MMSD, the agency will assemble a team of engineers to further review the findings, he said.

"We felt that there were some errors and mistakes in their analysis," Shafer said of the Triad study. Triad's figures were so different from MMSD's dumping numbers that "it raised a red flag," Shafer said.

The Triad study found MMSD's indirect method of estimating sewage dumping, or overflows, was lacking in several respects. Instead of measuring water levels where sewers overflow, MMSD compares water levels in streams before and after receiving dumped sewage, the study said.

Inaccuracies crop up in measuring stream elevations, and gauges sometimes don't work properly, the study said. The report also said the mathematical model MMSD used for calculating sewer overflow rates was outdated.

MMSD has been using a technique to estimate the amount of sewage dumped during a storm that was developed in 1986 before the deep tunnel system was completed.

Although the report examined only three storms when sewage was dumped, it also concluded that MMSD has likely vastly underestimated the amount of sewage dumped since the tunnel system opened in late 1993.

To improve measuring

The study recommended 10 steps for improving the measuring of sewage dumping, including replacing the old mathematical formulas and updating the technique for computing river levels.

Willie Gonwa, the engineer who did most of the work for Triad on the study, said he had not been contacted by MMSD about any concerns with the study. Triad provided a preliminary version of its report to MMSD in January 2002, another draft version in August and its final report in December.

Shafer said he had not given a copy of the study to MMSD commissioners because he didn't consider it done yet.

Gonwa called the project "as complicated as anything I've seen in my career." He said he understood MMSD's interest in ensuring accuracy but declined to comment on Shafer's criticism of the results until he has a chance to see the specific grounds.

"I'd let the district decide which (set of results) they want to stand by," Gonwa said. "If they have some question and they are performing an independent review, I'd defer my opinion until the independent review comes back."

Warning from Darling

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said the study was of great concern. If it appears MMSD is avoiding accountability, she said, she will try to prod the state Department of Natural Resources into action or seek a new legislative audit of the district.

"It makes me feel very nervous about having all that dumped into the lake," said Darling, a frequent critic of MMSD. "We can't keep doing this."

The underreporting could be a serious violation of environmental regulations governing MMSD, said Laurel O'Sullivan, a lawyer for the Lake Michigan Federation, a Chicago-based environmental group that's suing MMSD over past dumping.

She said the Triad report raised questions about whether MMSD has been honestly reporting both sanitary and combined sewer overflows.

Charles Burney, a DNR official who oversees MMSD, said he couldn't comment on the study because he hadn't seen it. MMSD's operating permit issued by the DNR allows it to dump up to six times a year from its combined sewers, without regard to the quantity dumped. Burney said that standard was based on guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The deep tunnel system is the cornerstone of a $2.8 billion court-ordered project that was designed to improve the quality of the waterways. The deep tunnel system - essentially a massive underground storage chamber for rain and sewage - has greatly reduced the frequency of sewage dumping, but its performance still has disappointed some.

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