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Something Stinks

Come On In, the Water’s… um, Well… This image was used in an award-winning ad, “A Bad Day At the Beach,” commissioned by the John Muir Chapter’s Great Waters Group, objecting to the Bush administration’s proposal to blend partially treated sewage with treated sewage. (Image courtesy of Kohnke Hanneken

Bush Administration Exposes Americans to Poorly Treated Sewage

By Ananda Hirsch
Conservation organizer

Last November, the EPA released a draft "blending" plan that would allow publicly owned treatment works to "blend" partially treated sewage with treated sewage and discharge it into waterways during rain storms. Partially treated sewage would undergo only primary treatment (removal of solids) and basic disinfection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are an estimated 7.1 million cases of mild-to-moderate infectious waterborne disease in the U.S. each year, and 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases. Even though the Clean Water Act requires municipalities to treat raw sewage to remove health-threatening viruses and parasites before it is discharged into rivers, lakes, streams, and drinking water sources, the Bush administration’s proposed new policy would likely expose more Americans to waterborne diseases.

Residents of Milwaukee know all too well the dangers of sewage in water—in 1993 an outbreak of cryptosporidium killed at least 54 people. But despite improvements to the sewage system, Milwaukee still practices blending. "Call it what they will, the bottom line is the Bush administration is saying it’s OK for us to be exposed to bacteria and viruses that can cause illness," says Milwaukee conservation organizer Rosemary Wehnes.

Sewage that has only undergone primary treatment may still contain pathogens that sicken people, such as giardia and cryptosporidium. This means that bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens would likely be discharged into our waterways, potentially causing a variety of illnesses, from mild gastroenteritis (stomach cramps and diarrhea) to life-threatening diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis.

Heavy rains often overload wastewater treatment facilities. When sewer systems are overloaded it can mean sewer backups into basements or the release of untreated or poorly treated sewage into our rivers and streams.

In addition to their proposal to allow blending, the Bush administration has also requested a $500 million cut in wastewater treatment funding. This means that publicly owned treatment works would be able to make fewer necessary upgrades, potentially increasing incidences of blending.

Blending is not the only option. Cities across the nation are beginning to employ innovative solutions to reduce runoff during heavy precipitation. Options such as planting native plants in yards, growing wildflowers in the median of roadways, and "green roofs" covered in grasses, capture rainwater as it falls and release it more slowly, thus reducing the burden placed upon the wastewater system.

Rather than increase the use of environmentally beneficial ways of capturing rainfall and funding needed upgrades to our sewer systems, the Bush administration is promoting irresponsible ways of addressing the problem.

Take Action

Send a letter to President Bush urging him to enforce the current Clean Water Act and continue to require that wastewater meet proper treatment standards prior to discharge. Remind the president that, rather than accepting partially treated sewage in heavy storm runoff as a way of life and weakening Clean Water Act protections, his administration should focus on ways to reduce runoff, including: rain barrels, green roofs, porous materials for parking lots, and water absorbing landscaping. In addition, the administration should ensure adequate funding for needed upgrades to our sewage infrastructure.

Write: President George W. Bush; 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW; Washington, DC 20500.

For more information contact Ananda Hirsch at (202) 675-6693, or email

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