Sewer Overflows: A Dirty Story, But
Someone's Gotta Cover It
Society of Environmental Journalists
Posted October 26, 2005
As hurricanes pound the Gulf coast and Northeastern states
wade through flooding from massive recent rainfall, many
sewer systems have been dumping untreated or partially
treated human waste into waterways. This can yield a host
of environmental and human health problems — from oxygen
depletion in water bodies, to soil contamination, to gastrointestinal
illness and more. However, in many regions sewer overflows
are not a response to a rare emergency but a standard
Simply put, sewer systems should rarely overflow. When
overflows are routine (or at least not uncommon), there
are systemic flaws worth exploring: chronic underfunding
and inadequate maintenance of sewer systems, lack of oversight,
and lack of public notification. These larger stories
are more important to cover, but it's notoriously difficult
to get space in the newshole for them. Fortunately, you
can leverage coverage of sewer overflow events to increase
public awareness of these concerns.
Combined sewer systems (CSSs, which collect rainwater
runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in
the same pipe) represent the greatest overflow hazard.
In August 2004, EPA reported that 746 communities in 32
states use CSSs. Most of these are in older communities
in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, and several
also are in the Pacific Northwest. These have a total
of 9,348 combined sewer outfalls, which are authorized
by 828 NPDES permits. Each year, these systems release
about 850 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and
storm water in overflow events (CSOs).
Sanitary sewer systems (SSSs) handle domestic, commercial,
and industrial wastewater via different pipes than those
used for stormwater runoff. These overflow more rarely
than CSSs. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) can be caused
by blockages, line breaks, or design defects that allow
storm or ground water to enter the system, etc.
EPA August 2004 report to Congress on Impacts and Control
of CSOs and SSOs.
EPA's June 2005 report, "2003 Drinking Water Infrastructure
Needs Survey and Assessment," says that drinking
water utilities will need about $277 billion for infrastructure
construction, upgrades, and replacement during the next
20 years. This includes necessary sewer system upgrades
to protect drinking water quality.
Map of US communities with combined sewer systems.
CSO contacts at EPA HQ and regions, as well as state agencies.
Currently there is no federal requirement for reporting
on sewer overflows or notifying the public. Some states
require sewer overflow reporting, but this data generally
is not routinely released to the public (although you
can request it).
LEGISLATION TO WATCH: In April 2005, Rep. Timothy Bishop
(D-NY) sponsored a bill (HR 1720) that would amend the
Clean Water Act to require that sewage treatment plants
monitor for and report discharges of raw sewage. Rep.
Bishop press: Brian Farber, 202-225-3826.
The Working Group on Community Right-to-Know is tracking
this legislation. Contact: George Sorvalis or Paul Orum,
Check with your state environmental agency to see whether
they require reporting of CSO or SSO events. If so, you
might be able to obtain reporting for the most recent
years in electronic format. If not, that's worth mentioning
in your story.
Check with local water authorities to see what kinds of
records they maintain of overflow events. Get details
on the volume and causes of specific recent events. If
this information is not recorded, or if they won't give
it to you, that's worth mentioning in your story.
Check with regional EPA officials about local NPDES permits
for CSOs or SSOs. These will list the locations of outfalls
where permitted overflows happen. Under what conditions
are overflows allowed? Find an accessible outfall that
seems especially prone to overflow, and check it out during
the next big rainstorm. Bring your camera.
If sewer overflows have been a problem in your region,
ask state environmental officials if local water authorities
have filed a Long-Term Control Plan (LTCP) to address
Regional advocacy groups that monitor water quality issues
can be a good source of info and context on sewer overflows,
especially regarding health or environmental effects.
For instance, in Indiana, the group Improving Kids' Environment
is very active on sewer overflow issues. Clean Water Action
also has programs in several states.
"Blending" is a particularly controversial and
increasingly common practice in which partially treated
sewage is blended with treated effluent and released into
the environment. When asking about sewer overflows, ask
also about blending which may occur during normal operations,
not just in overflow situations. In May 2005, EPA shelved
plans to relax rules governing blending. EPA press: Eryn