Great Lakes: Proposed permit lets sewage dumping go
Critics say 6 discharges a year for MMSD too lax, want
By STEVE SCHULTZE
MIlwaukee Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2002
The Milwaukee sewerage district could still dump raw
sewage up to six times a year, under a proposed update
of state rules governing combined storm and sanitary sewers.
That standard was blasted as too weak by a legislative
critic of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District,
but defended by regulators who said the six permissible
dumpings rule was an outgrowth of federal rules.
One proposed change in MMSD's state discharge permit,
urged by federal regulators, would be stricter limits
on dumping partially treated sewage. That has sometimes
been done by MMSD and is allowed by regulators as a last-resort
alternative to dumping untreated sewage.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
is calling for MMSD to develop a detailed "long-term control
plan" to further curb dumping of untreated combined sewage,
as part of the district's new permit. That requirement,
if adopted, would put added teeth into a more general
planning requirement MMSD has already agreed to.
The ongoing debate over dumping restrictions underscores
the deep divide between public revulsion over any raw
sewage dumping and the acceptance by MMSD and regulators
of the premise that a zero-discharge policy is a practical
impossibility. Just how close to zero MMSD can be nudged
will continue to play out.
State lawmakers will scrutinize MMSD's dumping practices
and the Department of Natural Resources' enforcement policies
at two public hearings next week. The Legislature's Joint
Audit Committee has scheduled a hearing on the July 30
state audit of MMSD at 9 a.m. Wednesday in Room 203R of
the Milwaukee County Courthouse.
A second legislative hearing on the audit and a 2001
DNR report on sewage dumping will start at 10 a.m. next
Thursday at the state Capitol in Madison. That hearing
was called by two Assembly committees.
The audit said design and operation problems with the
deep tunnel system have contributed to raw sewage dumping
and that water quality had improved only slightly since
the tunnels were completed in late 1993. Though the $2.8
billion tunnels and related improvements were intended
to virtually eliminate dumping, MMSD has dumped some 13.6
billion gallons of untreated sewage in the eight years
since the tunnel system has been in place.
"The public deserves a response to why these discharges
keep occurring and why the Department of Natural Resources
has yet to formally penalize MMSD for these actions,"
said Rep. Joseph Leibham (R-Sheboygan), co-chairman of
the audit panel.
State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), a persistent
critic of MMSD, said the DNR should hold MMSD to a stricter
standard than allowing six instances of sewage dumping
a year without any penalty.
"Six free dumps - that's not a good public policy," she
said. DNR officials "should be ashamed of themselves,"
Darling said. "That is just not being a good environmental
steward. Until the DNR holds a stick to this behavior,
nothing is going to change."
MMSD's state permit generally bans dumping from sanitary
sewers, which serve part of Milwaukee and most surrounding
suburbs. However, the permit allows either:
- Six dumpings of sewage from the combined storm/sanitary
sewers in older portions of Milwaukee and Shorewood,
- Capturing and treating 85% of all wastewater coming
through the metropolitan sewage system.
A draft version released to the Journal Sentinel of the
new DNR permit changes the language only slightly. The
DNR is expected to release the permit revisions soon,
and the public will 60 days to comment before the rules
would take effect.
The six-dumpings limit is an outgrowth of the EPA's 1994
policy guidelines on combined sewer dumping, or overflows.
The EPA did not set a specific limit on the annual number
of overflows but called for states to come up with a limit
that would not result in harming water quality, said Peter
Swenson, an EPA environmental engineer based in Chicago.
The EPA isn't objecting to leaving the six dumpings limit
in MMSD's permit because other provisions ban practices
that harm water quality, Swenson said. The proposed requirement
for planning urged by the EPA is more significant, he
MMSD would be required to complete various stages of
the planning process on a timetable, culminating with
a new long-range plan by mid-2007.
MMSD has repeatedly maintained that waste from combined
sewers during heavy storms is heavily diluted and nearly
all water. Critics, however, say the toilet and industrial
waste that's included in combined sewer wastes still fouls
local water and Lake Michigan and should be banned.
Another issue likely to come up at the legislative hearings:
questions about why MMSD has dumped sewage when significant
space remained in the 405 million-gallon deep tunnels.
MMSD has said about half the tunnel space is reserved
for more concentrated sanitary waste from suburbs and
accurately predicting exactly how much and where rain
will fall is tricky.