Sewer overflows and discharges of raw sewage are also major sources of water pollution. The EPA estimates that every year, the amount of untreated sewage that enters the environment in counties across the nation is enough to fill both the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden. Lack of investment in maintaining municipal sewage systems, combined with a lack of political will to curb new sewage hook-ups, results in more sewage than many systems can treat, especially when stormwater enters the system.
This January, the commissioners of the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO), which represents eight states and the federal government, put forward for public comment their recommendations that after a "wet weather event" (that is, rain), recreational water quality standards for the river be reduced.
"When it rains hard, the combined sewer overflows from communities along the river are overwhelmed by stormwater, causing raw sewage to flow into the river," explains Tim Guilfoile, Sierra Club Water Sentinel for northern Kentucky. "But rather than fix the overflows, wastewater treatment operators want to relax the standards for a period of time after a rain." Guilfoile says it appears that the EPA is using this as a test case, and if weakened standards are approved, the same agenda will be pushed nationally.
ORSANCO scheduled six public hearings on its proposal, with the decision whether to adopt the new standards to be made at its June meeting. Guilfoile and fellow staffers Becky McClatchy and Chris Robertson sprang into action the moment the proposal was released, working with volunteers to secure funding from the Sierra Club's Safe and Healthy Communities campaign and putting together a broad coalition of Ohio Valley conservation and sportsmen's groups. "ORSANCO thought there would be a little diddly opposition from a few Sierra Club wackos, but we've completely baffled them with how thoroughly we've engaged the public," Guilfoile says. "They've never seen this type of response before."
A direct mail campaign targeting boaters, fishermen, hunters, and Sierra Club members generated more than 8,000 postcards opposing the weakened standards that were then submitted to the agency. Nearly 100 people attended the most recent of five public hearings, in Louisville. Five testified in favor of the new standards, while nearly 40 people testified in opposition, including Kentucky's assistant attorney general. The attorney general is now on record as opposing the new standards.
The upshot? In early June ORSANCO announced it would delay action until it reviewed the "unprecedented number of comments" it received.
At first, tides and winds took the sewage out to sea, but a shift in the wind sent it back toward Waikiki, forcing officials to post signs warning tourists to stay out of the water, which showed levels of bacteria up to 60 times acceptable levels.
The closure of Hawaii's most famous beach due to raw sewage was catastrophic enough for a state so dependant on tourism. But the situation turned deadly when a 34-year-old Honolulu man fell into the contaminated water at Ala Wai Yacht Harbor on March 31 and died one week later of bacterial infections, two of them flesh-eating. Doctors concluded that both legs and an arm would need to be amputated to save the man's life, but he died of massive organ failure after one leg had been removed.
The Club's Hawaii Chapter has long warned the City & County of Honolulu that this kind of spill was all-but-inevitable if they failed to upgrade their sewage treatment plants and collection system. Twice, the Club and others sued the city over violations of the Clean Water Act, the first time resulting in a consent decree that upheld most of the charges, the second still pending.
Since 2004, the Club has repeatedly communicated to the city its desire to work out a settlement that focuses on a pro-active solution with citizen participation and support rather than waste money on attorneys' fees. The city has responded by hiring one of the nation's largest law firms to defend it, allocating more than $2.5 million to be paid to that firm.
"The Waikiki sewer line break wasn't an isolated incident, but part of an ongoing problem that has been years in the making," says Sierra Club organizer Melody Heidel. On average, she says, the city has spilled sewage about once every two days—the result of decades of poor maintenance, neglect, and raiding of sewer funds.
Part of the problem, Heidel says, is that the public doesn't know where to find basic data. "I get calls all the time from people asking what beaches are safe, vastly more calls since the March spill. I tell them about the state Web site and they say,'Yeah, but what do you think?' What we need next to the surf report, unfortunately, is the poop report."
Heidel coordinates the Hawaii Chapter's Blue Water Campaign, which does community education, water quality monitoring, and maintains a hotline for reporting sewage spills and pollution complaints and a statewide "rapid response team" of 150 volunteers who can be deployed at a moment's notice to investigate complaints.
The Sierra Club has sued Colorado Springs for repeated sewage releases into the creek and inadequate regulation under the Clean Water Act. Club water policy expert Ross Vincent says there's documentation of more than 100 spills over the last seven years.
"Apologists say these sewage releases are accidents or acts of God," he says. "Baloney. These are management failures. The infrastructure is old, the city continues to authorize new development hook-ups to connect to the system, and enforcement is ineffective."
The Sierra Club and other citizen groups are bringing residents out on "photo hikes" along the creek and doing water quality monitoring. They recently garnered their first-ever supportive editorial from the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, which used to publish regular anti-Earth Day editorials.
The Ohio Chapter's Miami Group scored a major triumph in 2004 when a federal judge ruled that Cincinnati residents who suffered sewage backups in their basements would obtain "effective and timely assistance" in dealing with the problem and mandating a $1.5 billion commitment from the local sewer district to stop the illegal sewer overflows and start a "claims, cleanup, and prevention" program.
The court victory, says Miami Group activist Marilyn Wall, recently elected to the national Club board of directors, grew out of a wide range of Club organizing efforts to draw attention to the problem, most notably making videos chronicling sewage-in-basement victims, and distributing them to the media, city council, and the judge.
Another victory was won in 2005 regarding sewage "blending"—the practice of allowing sewage treatment operators to dump barely treated sewage into lakes and rivers anytime it rains. When the EPA in 2003 proposed a policy that would allow sewage treatment plants to routinely discharge inadequately treated sewage into lakes, rivers, streams, and coastal waters, the Sierra Club launched a counter-offensive.
Joining with six state environmental agencies, the American Public Health Association, public health officials, shellfishermen, marina operators, and others, the Club lobbied heavily on Capitol Hill against the EPA's blending proposal and the administration backed off.
One of the objectives of the Safe and Healthy Communities Conservation Initiative Committee is to stop sewage pollution. Coming soon is a water activist toolkit that includes guidance on how to monitor and control sewage overflows and other sewage pollution.
For the activist toolkit and other resources, see the Safe and Healthy Communities section of our Web site.What You Can Do at Home
What Government and Developers Can Do
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