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Sewer Overflows: A Dirty Story, But Someone's Gotta Cover It
Tip Sheets
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 operating procedure.

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, 202-234-8494.

TIPS:

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 this problem.

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 Witcher, 202-564-4355.

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For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for
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