State suing MMSD over dumping of waste
Lautenschlager to pursue sewer upgrades, penalty
By Steve Schultze and Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Posted October 25, 2005
After a year of failed negotiations aimed at averting
litigation, state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager
said Tuesday that she would sue the Milwaukee Metropolitan
Sewerage District for dumping about 1.5 billion gallons
of untreated storm water and sanitary waste into local
waterways in May 2004.
She said she would seek additional system improvements
and penalties of up to $10,000 per day of violation.
MMSD officials, meanwhile, pledged to fight the suit.
They said the district has already allocated $900 million
for sewer projects and is in the midst of a $58 million
long-range planning effort aimed at identifying still
The suit will be filed Thursday in Milwaukee County Circuit
Court, Lautenschlager said.
Last year's dumping tally included 1.09 billion gallons
of untreated storm water and sanitary waste from Milwaukee's
and Shorewood's combined sewers, and 477 million gallons
of more concentrated waste from the separate sanitary
sewers that serve parts of Milwaukee and Shorewood and
all of the other 26 suburbs served by MMSD, Lautenschlager
Under the sewerage district's operating permit, dumping
into streams and Lake Michigan from combined sewers is
allowed up to six times a year, as long as it doesn't
hurt water quality. Dumping from the separate sanitary
sewers is banned, except under the most extreme weather
"MMSD and the folks representing it are out of touch
with the people in Milwaukee and surrounding communities
who wish to enjoy the lake and (who) would like to swim
in a lake and not something that approximates a human
toilet," Lautenschlager said during a news conference
She said she would ask a Milwaukee County judge to force
MMSD to stop future dumping by upgrading its system. That
could include improved monitoring, overdue repairs and
more strict enforcement of local ordinances, such as those
that bar connecting downspouts to sanitary sewers.
West Allis Mayor Jeannette Bell, chairman of the sewerage
commission, said at a news conference in Milwaukee that
the lawsuit would likely lead to tax increases.
"Forcing expenditures beyond the cost-effective
solutions required by the state and federal Clean Water
Acts makes no sense," Bell said.
She said she didn't know what more Lautenschlager would
have MMSD do.
MMSD last week released partial results of a study it
commissioned to bolster its case that major spending on
sewer improvements, such as expansion of the deep tunnel
system, would be expensive and do little to improve water
The report, based on a computer simulation, found that
polluted storm-water runoff, not sewer overflow, was the
biggest contributor to fecal bacteria in the Menomonee
River watershed. Other research has made the same point,
but experts caution that sewer overflow - dumping untreated
waste into streams and Lake Michigan - is particularly
hazardous because it carries human pathogens.
The state Department of Natural Resources asked Lautenschlager's
office to prosecute the district and the communities it
serves after the May 2004 storms. Initially, the district
said it had dumped a record 4.1 billion gallons of combined
sewer effluent during the month but later revised the
estimate to 1.2 billion gallons. Tuesday, the district
again revised the figures, to 1.09 billion gallons, saying
refined modeling had come up with more accurate figures.
Making good on threat
A year ago, Lautenschlager issued a draft complaint based
on the DNR request and threatened to sue MMSD and the
28 communities that it serves. But she said then that
she would hold off filing the lawsuit to see whether a
settlement could be reached.
She said Tuesday she would not include individual communities
in the suit because talks with the City of Milwaukee and
suburban communities have been "productive."
"We hope to reach an agreement with them soon,"
Sewage from the communities eventually reaches the MMSD
system of major sewer interceptor lines, the deep tunnel
system and two sewage treatment plants.
Lautenschlager accused MMSD officials of bad-faith bargaining,
prompting her to file the suit. But MMSD lawyer Michael
McCabe said state Justice Department lawyers had broken
"The attorney general demanded that we acknowledge
that we violated our permit, that we acknowledge that
the May storms were a violation of the law," McCabe
said. "We simply said they weren't, and they broke
off negotiations with us at that point."
Deputy Attorney General Daniel Bach said there have been
many meetings and district officials have never acknowledged
any problems with the sewerage system.
"They have a fancy PowerPoint (demonstration), all
of which is geared toward a PR war or presentation to
point out that the system works great," Bach said.
"The system doesn't work, otherwise we wouldn't see
billions of gallons of raw sewage dumped during these
The lawsuit against MMSD alleges that the overflows violated
terms of its permit, state and federal pollution laws
and state nuisance laws.
Lautenschlager said MMSD had failed to live up to terms
of a 2002 court-approved agreement by dumping sewage.
"They said no more (separate sewer overflows) would
take place, and yet they have," she said.
The new case puts the sewerage district in court on two
major pollution cases. For three years, MMSD has been
fighting a separate federal lawsuit filed by two environmental
groups, Alliance for the Great Lakes and Friends of Milwaukee's
Rivers. That case cites MMSD's historic sewage dumping
since its $3 billion deep tunnel system was finished in
Lautenschlager dismissed MMSD's claims that the fixes
she demanded were too costly, saying the district had
not lived up to the 2002 agreement calling for improvements.
"To play the cost card now is irresponsible on the
part of MMSD," she said.
Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed
to this report from Madison.