EPA’s Regulatory Leniency Allows Cities to Continue Raw Sewage Overflows

Photo: NRDC

As if the significant reduction in Clean Water Act coverage were not enough, The New York Times reported over the weekend that the “Environmental Protection Agency has made it easier for cities to keep dumping raw sewage into rivers by letting them delay or otherwise change federally imposed fixes to their sewer systems.”  Cities across the country from Pittsburg, to St. Louis, to Seattle and even Fort Wayne, Indiana (yes even Mayor Pete’s city) have sought regulatory flexibility to adhere to legal agreements they reached in the past in which they promised to eliminate sewer overflows but find that they now need more time.

Why This Matters:  The Obama Administration started the practice of giving cities a break on sewage overflows but according to officials from the prior administration, the bar was higher — a city had to demonstrate a hardship event like a natural disaster in order to get leniency.  The Trump Administration is “more sympathetic” and has allowed nearly as many in 3 years as Obama did in 8.  Dumping raw sewage is supposed to be illegal under the Clean Water Act — but the law is only as good as its implementation and enforcement.  Many of the cities that are dumping are faced with sewage systems that are antiquated and cannot handle the onslaught of water during the increasingly severe storms brought on by climate change, and the repairs and improvements cost in the billions.  Higher water bills can hit hard those residents who can least afford it.  If only we were spending our federal dollars on fixing this outdated infrastructure that allows our rivers to be polluted with human waste instead of building an illegal border wall.

Washington, D.C., For Example

The Times story uses Washington as its primary example — the city is now building the second of three sewage overflow tunnels so prevent untreated sewage from ending up in the Anacostia River, which now happens 15 to 20 times annually.  The tunnels they are digging are massive — ten stories underground, five miles long, and 23 FEET in diameter, they are designed to hold 190 million gallons of stormwater and sewage each.  The city’s sewer system dates back to the 1870s — this upgrade will cost $2.7 billion and take years to complete.  So now D.C. is apparently considering requesting a waiver of its consent decree too.

 

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