May 19, 2005

CSOs Threaten Health of Great Lakes

More than half of cities, towns in Great Lakes region violating Clean Water Act rules on sewer overflows

The Great Lakes – along with streams and rivers in six upper Midwest states (Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) – are being inundated with billions of gallons of raw human waste and other untreated sewage that cities and towns should be cleaning up under eight-year-old Clean Water Act rules, according to a new report issued by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

The report finds that the failure of Great Lakes states and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address "combined sewer overflows" (CSOs) poses a major threat to public health and will degrade upper Midwest waterways for "several decades" to come if the sewer overflow problem is not brought under control.

The Environmental Integrity Project was joined today by Friends of the Chicago River, Michigan Clean Water Action, Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, Great Lakes Public Interest Group (PIRG) and Ohio PIRG in issuing the report entitled "Backed Up: Cleaning Up Combined Sewer Systems in the Great Lakes."

The report concludes "more than half of the municipalities in the Great Lakes states do not meet even minimum Clean Water Act requirements for combined sewer overflows. 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."

"Combined sewer systems" carry both storm water and raw sewage to a wastewater treatment plant through a single collection system. During heavy rains, the sewage collection systems are overloaded and proceed to dump of a mix of pathogens, toxins and other contaminants directly into Great Lake and regional rivers and streams.

As the report notes: "Combined sewer overflows are a major threat to water quality in the Great Lakes states -- which are home to 43 percent of the nation’s 828 CSO communities -- making water unsafe for swimming, boating or fishing …"

More than three out of five Great Lakes communities violate CSO standards. According to an EIP review of EPA data, only about 38 percent of the communities actually comply with the minimal Clean Water act requirements. In some cases the compliance rates are even worse.

For example, 2001 data compiled by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission showed that at least nine out of the 10 facilities that discharge to the Ohio River had not fully implemented basic controls. Far too many Midwest municipalities have not taken relatively low-cost actions to reduce overflows by improving operations, which could in turn reduce or eliminate the need for more expensive solutions.

More than half of Great Lakes municipalities do not have long-term plans in place to clean up the CSO problem. A total of 54 percent of the towns and cities still do not have approved long-term control plans. Almost a quarter (22 percent) of these municipalities have not even submitted the plans to the states for approval. There are significant differences between the states in regard to long-term plans for CSO controls. Indiana has approved only 17 of the 107 long-term plans required in the state, while Michigan has approved 38 out of 42. Because the planning process is truly "long-term," and may require up to 20 years to complete, the backlog in development and approval of plans could leave the Great Lakes exposed to raw sewage from CSOs for decades to come.

The Midwest public is being kept in the dark about CSOs and related health threats. Although public notice is required by law, some permittees neither adequately notify the public when combined sewer overflows occur, nor do they provide information about the health threats presented by CSOs. Only Michigan and Indiana have real-time reporting of CSO events, provided in a format that is readily accessible by the public. The most widely used method of public notice in other states is to post permanent identification signs at CSO outfalls. Lack of notice about sewage spills and what they mean leaves the public exposed to unnecessary risk; neighborhoods may not be aware that the nearby river or lakefront is overloaded with bacteria and unsafe to enter. Michigan is the only state that compiles detailed information about overflows in an annual report so that the public can know the extent of the problem in the state. However, no state, including Michigan, was able to provide comprehensive data on the water quality impacts of CSOs on the receiving waters.

Enforcement of CSO controls is weak. EPA and Great Lakes state governments completed a total of 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.

CSO controls are affordable, but federal threats to funding won’t help clean up the problem. EPA’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund helps states and municipalities offset the cost of sewer upgrades, including projects to phase out CSOs, but the Bush Administration has proposed cutting the budget for the fund by about $370 million. States and municipalities typically must finance over 85 percent of wastewater control costs themselves, so even if federal cuts do not take place, increases in local sewer rates may be required in some municipalities to cover the costs of CSO control.