For many years, operators of America's aging, overworked sewer systems have dumped partially treated sewage into rivers and bays.
Dec. 27--TAMPA, Fla. -- For many years, operators of America's aging, overworked sewer systems have dumped partially treated sewage into rivers and bays.
Now, the federal government is on the verge of saying it is OK to continue the dumping, which has been linked to beach closings, shellfish advisories and waterborne diseases.
The proposed policy comes at a time when a growing population and aging sewer systems cause thousands of overflows each year.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expects to make a decision in the next month on the new policy that agency officials are calling "guidance" for utility operators. The policy would allow "blending" during rainstorms when sewer treatment plants are overwhelmed by high volumes of runoff water mixed with sewage.
Blending means part of the flow to the plant goes through primary treatment to remove solids but skips the biological treatment that removes pathogens and viruses. Then the partially treated sewage is blended with fully treated sewage.
EPA officials say they are merely clarifying the legality of a technique already in common use.
"We felt it was necessary to put out this guidance for draft and comment because there has grown over recent years some confusion about whether blending is legal or illegal under the Clean Water Act," said Ben Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water. "We think with safeguards in place ... it is a legal practice."
However, environmental groups say the policy will discourage communities from upgrading systems.
"They'll be putting all those pollutant loads of viruses and bacteria back into the environment, where it will contaminate drinking water sources, kill fish, close beaches and make people sick," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Grumbles maintains that EPA has safeguards in the policy. For instance, utilities will not be able to blend unless the final product flowing into a waterway meets water quality standards, he said.
Environmental groups argue, however, that EPA and state environmental agencies have not been strictly enforcing wastewater pollutant limits at many plants. For example, EPA records show that the Escambia County Utilities Authority's sewer plant in Pensacola was out of compliance with pollutant standards in its discharge permit all but four months during the past three years.
The violations came despite a consent order the utility signed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 1998 that outlined improvements for the treatment system. DEP fined the utility $504,124 in 2002, but the violations continued. DEP has amended the consent order four times, but the plant remains in noncompliance.
Linda Young, Southeast director of the Clean Water Network, said there are other Florida cities and counties that have routinely violated their permits by dumping untreated sewage into waterways. They include Jacksonville, Apalachicola, Miami-Dade County and Key West.
"Right now, it's illegal and they are supposed to fix the problem," Young said. "This new rule would let them off the hook and let them just keep doing it."
State officials say that they do try to enforce pollution limits on sewer plants. They say, however, that it is hard to prevent sewer overflows and bypasses because of Florida's rainy weather.
"Because we have a lot of rain in Florida and it comes in heavy doses, both the state and the feds recognize there will be bypasses," Geof Mansfield, a DEP analyst, said in an interview this year.
Young said that state or federal enforcement action comes only after citizens or environmental groups file a lawsuit. A lawsuit by grass-roots groups forced Jacksonville to upgrade its treatment plant.
People will lose the legal foundation for such lawsuits, Young said, if EPA says sewage blending is allowed under the Clean Water Act.
"It's going to say to the public, 'You have to put up with this crap,'" Young said.
Sewer operators for Tampa, Hillsborough County, St. Petersburg and Pinellas County utilities say they have not had to bypass treatment at their plants, even during this year's hurricanes. That is because those agencies have made significant investments during the past 25 years in new plants or expanded capacity.
Tampa spent $90 million in 1979 to improve the quality of treatment at its Hooker's Point plant. The plant has a normal capacity of 96 million gallons a day but can handle 180 million gallons a day during storms because much of the rainwater is relatively free of pollutants, said Ralph Metcalf, Tampa wastewater director.
Pinellas County spent $150 million in the mid-1990s upgrading its treatment plant and $180 million on a reclaimed water program. The county had to raise sewer rates 100 percent over 10 years to pay for the improvements.
As expensive as the sewer plant upgrades are, those costs are a fraction of what it would take to stop sewage overflows from manholes, broken pipes and malfunctioning lift stations.
"You may have $350 million in a plant," Metcalf said, "but it's way over twice that in the collection system. If we Band- Aid it and patch it, there's a point where this stuff will catch up with you."
So far this year, 6.5 million gallons of untreated sewage has spilled on the ground, into waterways and even has flooded people's homes in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
Some of the worst spills were because of power outages during the hurricanes that drenched the area in September and October. Lift stations, which pump sewage through the mains to the treatment plants, shut down across the Tampa Bay area. There were not enough portable generators to handle the crisis.
Tampa lost power to half its lift stations, Metcalf said.
The biggest cause of sewage overflows is water infiltrating the collection systems. The webs of pipes are full of leaks, and the older systems are the worst. In large cities, with hundreds of miles of underground sewer mains, just locating the worst problem areas is an expensive proposition.
An evaluation of St. Petersburg's sewer system in 1997 showed there were "defects everywhere," said Patty Anderson, wastewater director. The city responded with sewer rate increases and an aggressive, $10 million-a-year inspection and renovation program.
Grumbles, the EPA administrator, said sewage overflows are an enforcement priority in the agency.
Environmental groups say the Bush administration's rhetoric does not match its actions. This year, the administration proposed cutting $500 million from the state revolving loan fund. During the past 16 years, the fund has dispersed 14,200 loans, totaling $47 billion, to local governments to rehabilitate sewer systems.
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Â© 2004, Tampa Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.