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Great Lakes: Proposed permit lets sewage dumping go on

Critics say 6 discharges a year for MMSD too lax, want tighter restrictions

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, or:
  • 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 said.

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.

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