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Great Lakes Article:

EPA seeks tougher rules on sewage dumping
MMSD official calls proposed standards unfair, unnecessary
Marie Rohde
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is insisting on tougher water quality standards in a new five-year permit proposal for Milwaukee's sewerage district, according to a letter released Monday during a public hearing.

The new standards would affect how the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District measures the impact of dumping raw sewage into Lake Michigan and local rivers during heavy storms.

The sewerage district is balking at the change, saying there is no legal authority for the move and that it is unnecessary.

The sewerage district's operating permit expires Dec. 31.

The standard that the district has had to meet was based on the frequency of sewage dumpings. The district is not supposed to dump untreated sewage from the combined sewer area - a large part of Milwaukee and about half of Shorewood where a single sewer collects rain and waste matter - more frequently than an average of six times a year.

In the areas where separate sewers collect rain, federal law prohibits dumping because the sewage is presumed to be more concentrated.

Since 1994, more than 13 billion gallons of untreated sewage has been dumped, about a billion of it from areas where it is prohibited by federal law.

"We are aware of no legal authority for the restriction proposed in the permit," Kevin Shafer, the district's executive director, said Monday at the public hearing. "(It's an) unnecessary imposition of arbitrary restrictions upon our planning and does not aid us in achieving our difficult tasks."

The EPA wants the district to use a computer modeling program that would show the impact on water quality based on how much sewage is dumped, not the number of dumping events. Peter Swenson, speaking for the EPA, said his office called for the new approach and that the DNR agreed it was necessary.

"The presumption was that they could design to a certain level - four to six overflows a year - and that would meet the water quality standards," Swenson said. "We have not met those standards."

In other comments made at the hearing, environmentalists and others said the DNR needs tougher regulations for the sewerage district and should step up its enforcement efforts.

Shafer, however, called for a relaxing of some conditions in the proposed permit and said some clauses would hinder attempts to clean up the lake and rivers.

A key issue for both environmentalists and the district are provisions in the proposed permit that would regulate the dumping of partially treated sewage into Lake Michigan from the Jones Island treatment plant.

In the past, the district has dumped partially treated sewage at both Jones Island and the South Shore treatment plant during heavy rain.

For the first time, the proposed permit would prohibit dumping of partially treated sewage at the South Shore plant. It also would call for hourly sampling of the partially treated sewage dumped at Jones Island.

Laurel O'Sullivan, a lawyer with the Lake Michigan Federation, based in Chicago, argued that it was wrong to allow the district to dump partially treated sewage when the deep tunnel still had room to store the waste and water. Federal law requires that dumping occur only when there are "no feasible alternatives," while the DNR permit would allow the district to dump sewage according to "good engineering practices," she said.

Last June, about 21 million gallons of partially treated sewage was dumped in anticipation of a rainstorm that never materialized. O'Sullivan cited that as an example of the system not being used to its capacity. She asked how the DNR would react to the same incident under the terms of the new permit.

"I'd have to review the facts," said James Fratrick, who oversees the district for the DNR.

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