Many of Nation’s Sewage Systems Desperately Need Upgrades

Tue July 20, 2004 - National Edition

MILWAUKEE (AP) A decade ago, Milwaukee opened a $2.8 billion deep tunnel sewer system to help eliminate sewage dumpings into Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.

But within two weeks this year, the city and some suburbs dumped 4.6 billion gallons of untreated sewage after heavy rains, angering residents, environmentalists and Milwaukee’s big-city neighbor to the south.

Milwaukee’s sewage dumping is typical of a problem plaguing other cities such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Detroit.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that as much as 860.5 billion gallons of sewage are dumped a year into rivers and lakes nationwide.

Many cities have inadequate sewer systems –– some with pipes as old as a century –– that can’t keep up with heavy rains and need billion-dollar, decades-long updates.

“The basic point is that sewer overflows are a large national problem and the problem did not develop overnight,” said Ben Grumbles, acting assistant administrator of the EPA’s water division. “It developed over many decades.”

Milwaukee also had to dump more than 2 million gallons into waterways this month, mostly due to sewer error.

Mayor Tom Barrett ordered an audit of the agency that runs the system, which is working on $900 million of court-ordered sewer improvements.

But those upgrades may not persuade 29-year-old Carly Daniels to take to the lake right away.

She recently watched her 3-year-old son play in the sand at a Milwaukee beach not far from a sign that indicated good water quality in Lake Michigan.

“I won’t let him go in the water. It’s disgusting,” she said. “It’s the thought of that much being dumped into the water.”

In 1993 Milwaukee opened a 405 million-gallon tunnel system that holds sewage and water until treatment plants can clean them of biological contaminants that cause disease and pollutants such as fertilizers from yard and street runoff.

Sandra McLellan, an assistant scientist at the Great Lakes WATER Institute in Milwaukee, said both types of contaminants are worrisome, but scientists are especially concerned about how runoff affects a lake’s ecosystem.

Biological contaminants eventually die, but runoff pollution doesn’t, she said.

Whatever is in Milwaukee’s sewage overflows, it’s caused Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to blame the city for recent Illinois beach closings.

“That’s a lot of garbage. It’s going to float down here,” Daley has said.

EPA officials say that’s impossible.

Most of Milwaukee’s sewage flows to plants through a sanitary system, which has separate pipes for rain runoff and wastewater from homes. The rest flows through an older combined sewer, which has one pipe to capture everything.

Most of what was dumped after heavy May rains was from the combined sewers, which were designed to overflow so sewage won’t back up into basements. In Milwaukee, it’s estimated the combined sewer overflows contain 15 percent raw sewage.

Of the more than 20,000 sewer systems nationwide, 752 are combined systems, mostly built before the 1950s. Since then, cities have built sanitary systems.

Sometimes sewage is not treated or only partially treated to remove contaminants but still released, often after heavy rains. That’s when it can become illegal.

A decade ago, the EPA issued a rule, made into a law by Congress in 2000, that required cities with combined systems to develop a plan to prevent overflows. About 34 percent have done so, said Jim Hanlon, director of EPA’s office of wastewater management.

The government generally prohibits sanitary sewer overflows and allows only a certain number of combined sewer overflows, depending on the waterway.

Ken Kirk of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies criticized the EPA for not providing enough money for sewer system upgrades.

He noted the agency used to provide grants for most repairs but now has a loan program that provides up to 7 percent of repair costs.

Like Milwaukee, other cities are doing major upgrades.

• St. Louis’ combined sewer system dumped 26 billion gallons of sewage a year into the Mississippi and another river since 1995. The district started a $3.7 billion, 20-year upgrade last year.

• Atlanta is working on a $3.2 billion upgrade to its aging system, which has dumped 10.6 billion gallons into streams and the Chattahoochee River since 2002.

• In Allegheny County, PA, an estimated 16 billion gallons overflow from sewers into rivers annually. The county, home to Pittsburgh, is under orders to do $3 billion in upgrades.

• Detroit has dumped 49.1 billion gallons from its combined sewers into rivers since 2002. The city is spending $1 billion on upgrades.