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Aging Sewer Systems Fouling Great Lakes
By JOHN FLESHER, Associated Press Writer
Wed May 18, 8:32 AM ET

Sewage is fouling the Great Lakes and other waters in the region because many municipal waste treatment systems are failing to stop overflows, environmental groups said in a report Tuesday.

Most municipal systems in six Great Lakes states that combine stormwater with domestic and industrial sewage haven't met minimum federal standards for preventing such discharges, nor have they received approval for long-term plans to control overflows, the report said.

The situation poses a health hazard that could get worse under Bush administration proposals to slash funding for wastewater system upgrades and to let sewage plants skip some stages of treatment during heavy rains or melting snow, environmentalists said.

"Combined sewer overflows are a major threat to water quality in the Great Lakes states," said Michele Merkel, counsel to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., that conducted the study.

The findings were based on data compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Together, they have 358 municipalities with federal permits for combined sewers, which use the same collection system for moving stormwater and raw sewage to treatment plants. When the systems overflow during storms, contaminated water is dumped into lakes, rivers and oceans — about 850 billion gallons nationwide each year.

The pollution ranges from bacteria, viruses and parasites to metals such as mercury and lead, said Cheryl Nenn of the group Friends of Milwaukee's Rivers.

The Great Lakes region has nearly half of the nation's 828 combined sewage systems, which tend to be located in older cities. Most newer systems keep sewage and stormwater separate.

The federal Clean Water Act required communities with combined sewers to take nine steps by 1997, including upgrading maintenance and operations, improving storage capacity and doing better at notifying the public about overflows.

Also required were long-term plans for reducing overflows by doing things such as upgrading infrastructure to separate collection systems.

About 62 percent of the communities have failed to take the nine steps, which the report describes as minimum efforts. About 54 percent haven't secured state approval of long-term plans and 22 percent have yet to submit plans to their states, the report said.

Only Michigan and Indiana require immediate reporting of overflows, and government agencies across the region do poorly at inspecting combined sewer systems and punishing violations of federal rules, it said.

Lack of money is the biggest reason cities haven't moved more quickly on sewer upgrades, said Joe Fivas, transportation and environmental affairs manager for the Michigan Municipal League.

"The reality is they are underfunded and don't have the resources to have Cadillac systems," Fivas said.

In a telephone news conference, environmentalists said some of the required steps wouldn't be very costly. But they criticized the Bush administration's proposal to cut a federal loan program for upgrading treatment plants from $1.09 billion this year to $730 million in fiscal 2006.

They also urged the EPA not to give municipalities greater freedom to blend fully and partially treated sewage during peak flow periods. The agency has been considering a blending policy since 2003 but has made no decision, EPA spokesman Dale Kemery said.

"Blending lowers the bar for wastewater treatment," said Mike Sriberg, Great Lakes advocate for the Public Interest Research Group. "What we need is full treatment of waste."

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies, which represents metropolitan sewage treatment facilities, says blending is "an accepted, environmentally sound practice used by the nation's public treatment utilities for over 30 years."

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (news, bio, voting record), D-Menominee, Mich., will offer an amendment to a spending bill this week that would block the EPA from allowing blending except during extreme weather conditions, a spokeswoman said.


On the Net:

Report posted at Environmental Integrity Project Web site:
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