EPA Flushes Sewage Dumping Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday that it will dump its much-criticized proposal to allow municipal sewage agencies to release partially treated sewage during wet weather.

The agency, which proposed the policy change in November 2003, received 98,000 public comments on the plan, many of them critical. The EPA issued a press release announcing the proposal had been dropped hours before the House was scheduled to vote on an amendment that would block the agency from implementing the plan.

Municipal sewage agencies sought the change, saying their treatment capacity is often overwhelmed by storm water during heavy rains. They are already permitted under the Clean Water Act to blend sewage that has not been treated for bacteria or pathogens with fully treated sewage during extreme weather events such as hurricanes.

However, building, repairing and upgrading sewage pipes and treatment plants to avoid the necessity for blending during more routine storms would cost sewage agencies and their customers tens of billions of dollars, according to industry and EPA estimates.

The policy change would also have benefited builders and developers, allowing local governments in fast-growing areas to lift moratoriums on new sewer hookups or lower their fees.

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

The congressional amendment had more than 100 Democratic and Republican co-sponsors.

“The EPA has been mulling over this policy change for nearly two years,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chief sponsor of the amendment. “It’s about time they recognized this policy proposal is bad for public health, bad for the environment and bad for business.”

Among those opposing the policy were state agencies in Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington, shellfish growers and environmental groups.

“This decision shows that citizens’ concern for clean water can trump Washington politics,” said Christy Leavitt, a water specialist with the environmental group U.S. PIRG.

On the Net: www.epa.gov  

(E-mail Joan Lowy at LowyJ(at)shns.com.)