EPA Drops Wastewater Blending Proposal

The House of Representatives voted in May to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from issuing its wastewater blending proposal, which would have allowed sewer operators to discharge partially treated sewage into waterways.

The House of Representatives voted in May to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from issuing its wastewater blending proposal, which would have allowed sewer operators to discharge partially treated sewage into waterways.

To handle excess flows during heavy rains or snowmelts, sewage plant operators sometimes treat all wastewater with the primary clarifier, then route the volumes that exceed the capacity of the plant’s biological treatment unit directly into the discharge from the unit.

EPA announced it would drop the proposal only a few hours before the House added the anti-blending amendment to an appropriations bill.

Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Water, said blending is not a long-term solution. “Our goal is to reduce overflows and increase treatment of wastewater to protect human health and the environment,” he said.

Nancy Stoner, of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said, “Faced with the prospect of an embarrassing defeat in the House, the EPA and its congressional allies had no choice but to wake up and smell the sewage. With this victory, Congress delivered a strong message reminding EPA that its mission is to protect our health and environment.”

Stoner continued, “If EPA had stuck to its plan to open the sewage floodgates, it would have caused more sickness, more beach closings, more economic suffering for local communities, and greater harm to fish and other wildlife.”

Earlier, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) charged that the Great Lakes and a number of streams and rivers in six nearby states are being polluted with untreated sewage.

The nonprofit group said EPA and the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin have failed to address combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

EIP issued a report that claimed more than half of the municipalities in the Great Lakes states do not meet minimum Clean Water Act (CWA) requirements for combined sewer overflows.

It said, “Evidence suggests that 62% of the municipalities are not meeting the basic maintenance or reporting requirements for combined sewer overflows, and 54% do not have approved long-term plans required by law for upgrading sewage collection or treatment systems.”

It said Great Lakes states have 43% of the nation’s 828 communities with combined sewer systems, which carry both storm water and raw sewage to a wastewater treatment plant through a single collection system. It said during heavy rains, the sewage collection systems are overloaded and dump contaminants into the Great Lakes and regional waterways.

The report said EPA data indicate only 38% of the communities comply with the minimal CWA requirements and 54% lack approved long-term control plans to address the CSO problem.

It noted significant differences between the states. Indiana has approved only 17 of the 107 long-term plans required while Michigan has approved 38 out of 42.

EIP claimed enforcement of CSO controls is weak. It said EPA and Great Lakes state governments completed only 66 inspections of CSO systems in 2004, primarily in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. In the four years prior to 2004, the states reported only 35 inspections across 358 CSO communities. While EPA has brought a number of cases in court, only three states -- Michigan, Ohio and Indiana -- have initiated any enforcement action against municipalities violating Clean Water Act CSO requirements.

SRF Funding Debate

The National Governors Association has urged the US Senate to fund the Clean Water state revolving fund (SRF) at $1.35 billion, the level at which it has been funded in the past and up from the $1.1 billion appropriated last year.

Earlier, House appropriations committees proposed earmarking $850 million each for the Clean Water and Drinking Water SRFs in fiscal 2006. The $850 million for the Clean Water SRF was $241 million less than in fiscal 2005 but $120 million more than EPA requested. The $850 million for the Drinking Water SRF matches the agency’s request.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Republicans’ fiscal 2006 Interior and Environmental Appropriations bill “turns back the clock on clean water, slashing the Clean Water SRF for the second year in a row. Cuts for this program total $500 million in this two-year period.”

Pelosi added, “About 45% of water bodies in the US that have been assessed do not meet our water quality standards. Our wastewater infrastructure is aging, and our population is growing. The EPA’s estimates funding needs range between $300 billion and $400 billion over the next 20 years.”

Meanwhile, the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment has launched an examination of the funding gap between the nation’s water infrastructure needs and current funding levels. The panel, chaired by John Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.), scheduled two hearings on the subject.

The committee staff noted the US has 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment plants, 100,000 major pumping stations, 600,000 miles of sanitary sewers, and 200,000 miles of storm sewers. It said since 1972, with the enactment of the CWA, federal, state, and local investment in US national wastewater infrastructure has been more than $250 billion.

The staff said, “Our nation’s ability to provide clean water is being challenged as our existing national wastewater infrastructure is aging, deteriorating, and in need of repair, replacement, and upgrading. According to studies by the EPA, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Water Infrastructure Network, our nation’s clean water infrastructure needs over the next 20 years could exceed $400 billion -- twice the current level of investment by all levels of government. The needs are especially urgent for areas trying to remedy the problem of CSOs and sanitary sewer overflows, and for small communities lacking sufficient independent financing ability.”

The staff noted that since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the protection of critical water infrastructure has become a national priority, placing a further demand for resources on utilities.

It said there have been proposals that the US create a clean water trust fund to finance wastewater infrastructure needs, but the challenge is to determine how to build the trust fund.

MTBE Action

The attorneys general of 12 states have urged the Senate to reject any legislation that would protect oil companies from lawsuits alleging the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) has contaminated groundwater.

The states were Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and California.

The attorneys general said the energy bill passed by the House in April “would leave local taxpayers and water consumers to pay for the cleanup of contaminated drinking water wells.”

They added, “MTBE manufacturers and refiners should not obtain through lobbying what they cannot obtain under the common law of our respective states.”

They said more than 1,800 water systems in 29 states are contaminated with MTBE, a potential human carcinogen with an odor that makes water undrinkable.

The House of Representatives has approved an energy bill containing a liability waiver for MTBE manufacturers. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s bill does not. But the issue will arise when a conference committee begins work to reconcile the House and Senate versions.

Fluoride Concerns

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has urged the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to list fluoride in tap water in its Report on Carcinogens, because the chemical may cause a rare form of bone cancer -- osteosarcoma -- in boys.

EWG said concerns have grown in recent years about the safety of fluoride in tap water -- 170 million people live in communities with fluoridated water. In 2002, EPA asked the National Research Council (NRC) to study the issue, a report that is due next February.

EWG conceded “the value of fluoride to dentistry, yet a substantial and growing body of peer-reviewed science strongly suggests that adding fluoride to tap water is not the safest way to achieve the dental health benefits of fluoridation.”

EWG said new epidemiology provides strong evidence of a link between exposure to fluoride in tap water during the mid-childhood growth spurt between ages 6 and 10, and bone cancer in adolescence. Additional science strongly suggests that fluoride can cause genetic mutations in bone cells directly related to childhood bone cancer.”

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