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Planet Main
In This Section
PDF July/August 2006
e-mail June 30, 2006
e-mail April 28, 2006


Sewage 101
States Take Lead on Mercury, Global Warming
I Want My MPG
Postcard from Puerto Rico
The Birdman of Baghdad
Advocate for Safe Weapons Disposal Honored
Stop I-3
Family Planning Key to Sustainable Future
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are
Ken Smokoska
Larry and Vicki Patton
Claudia Hilligoss


Moral Challenge, Tough Choices
Offshore Drilling Moratorium Threatened
Cool Cities Guide
Saving the Au Sable
Native Peoples, Club Unite
Sierra Club Insider
Who We Are
Tom Libby
Marty Peale
Yochi Zakai
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
Sewage 101

More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Sewage and Nutrient Pollution But Were Afraid to Ask

by Tom Valtin

In this Article:

Years ago, three friends and I stuffed our backpacks with several months' worth of clothes and headed halfway around the world in search of the exotic and the sublime. We found it in spades—in glacier-clad mountains, steamy jungles, vestiges of lost empires, and cities so jam-packed with humanity they made Manhattan, my home at the time, seem uncrowded in comparison.

That sojourn was a highlight of my young adulthood, teaching me, among other things, that for all its comforts and opportunities, the American way of life is just one way to live. Still, I vividly recall "hitting the wall" one evening, in a storied locale that had fired my imagination since childhood, when our hotel room was suffused with a sickening stench emanating from an open sewer outside our window. "This is a great country," one of my companions offered, "but they just don't have their s**t together."

Sewage is something every society—indeed, every human settlement—must deal with. We ignore it or treat it lightly (pun intended) at our peril; dealing responsibly with sewage is a big factor in maintaining safe and healthy communities. Certainly the United States, with its "first world" sanitation and plumbing, has little in common with open sewers. Or does it?

Every year, millions of Americans get sick from contact with inadequately treated sewage that ends up in water that they swim in or drink, so you wouldn't think there'd be much of a constituency for more feces in our water. Yet in 2003 the EPA proposed a plan to relax sewage treatment regulations and discharge large volumes of partially treated wastewater into lakes and rivers during rain events. And agencies like the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission are currently trying to lower recreational water quality standards in order to ease restrictions on sewage dumping following rainstorms.

Where Nutrient Pollution Comes From

We tend to think of pollution as toxic substances like mercury or PCBs. In fact, the most common threat to the health of waters across the United States is nutrient pollution, which comes from a variety of sources, including animal waste, fertilizers, human sewage, and stormwater runoff. Row crop farming and factory farms are both huge sources of nutrient pollution.

Plants and animals need nutrients to survive, of course, but putting too many nutrients—especially nitrogen and phosphorus— into our waterways can make them dangerous and unhealthy. When a water body receives more nutrients than it needs, organic matter like algae begins to take over and other organisms can't live or grow. All U.S. coastal waters currently show signs of nutrient over-enrichment, and more than 60 percent of coastal rivers and bays in every coastal state in the Lower 48 are moderately-to-severely polluted by nutrients. According to the EPA, elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are responsible for impairing a huge list of waterways in nearly every state.

Water quality in the lakes and streams that supply our drinking water is directly linked to the safety of the water that comes out of our taps. Excessive nitrogen and phosphorus levels produce correspondingly high levels of organic matter in our raw water supplies, and when disinfectants like chlorine are added to kill pathogens, they combine with this organic matter to form unwanted by-products. These disinfection by-products, such as trihalomethanes, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects, have been found in the tap water of more than half of Americans.

In addition to harming human health, algal blooms and low dissolved oxygen levels caused by nutrient pollution harm fish and other aquatic life. In areas like the Gulf of Mexico's infamous "Dead Zone," excess nutrients have caused waters to become totally devoid of oxygen, resulting in massive fish kills.

States with large numbers of factory farms have major nutrient pollution problems in their waterways. These giant complexes confine thousands of animals in one facility and produce staggering amounts of animal waste—1 trillion pounds per year. All too often this waste leaks into rivers and streams, contaminating the drinking water, fouling the air, and spreading disease. The EPA estimates that hog, chicken, and cattle waste has polluted more than 35,000 miles of rivers in the lower 48 states.

Photo by Ross Vincent

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.


Fighting Sewage Overflows with Postcards

Testing the Waters: Volunteers Sharmili Sampath and Jack Randall gather water samples in Gunpowder Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River in northern Kentucky. Photo by Tom Bader.
The Sierra Club is currently fighting a battle involving water quality standards and stormwater overflows along the Ohio River that could have a ripple effect on sewage regulations nationwide. The Ohio, at 981 miles in length, is the drinking water source for approximately three million people. More than 25 million, or nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population, live in the Ohio River Basin.

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.

Honolulu Sewer Line Break Highlights Chronic Problem

Bowling for Dollars : Hawaii Chapter activists engaged citizens and gathered donations on Earth Day to help the chapter promote sewer system improvements and protect Hawaii's clean water. Photo by Jeff Mikulina.
This spring, after a 42-inch sewer line cracked, at least 48 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into Ala Wai Canal, which empties into the ocean just west of Honolulu's Waikiki Beach. City officials claimed they had no alternative but to pump the sewage into the canal to prevent wastewater from backing up into homes and hotels.

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.

Acts of God? Or Management Failures?

Working with Decision-makers : Sierra Club water policy expert Ross Vincent, left, inspect polluted Fountain Creek with Colorado Congressman John Salazar and Pueblo City Councilman Gilbert Ortiz. Photo by Velma Campbell
In Colorado, the Club has been waging a vigorous campaign to compel the city of Colorado Springs to clean up its act following repeated sewage spills in Fountain Creek, which runs south to the city of Pueblo, where it joins the Arkansas River. Among other pollutants, the creek contains high levels of E. coli, and Pueblo residents living near the creek have had to warn their children not to play in the polluted water.

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.
Their Side of the Story: The billboard above was paid for by the Pueblo Chieftain, a local newspaper that Vincent describes as "traditionally hostile to the Sierra Club\but this issue is changing the relationship." Photo by Ross Vincent.

Sewage-in-Basement Videos an Unexpected Hit

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.

Blending—Good for Scotch, Bad for Drinking Water

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.

What You—and Your Local Government Agencies—
Can Do

Ankle Deep: Water Sentinels Director Scott Dye sampling for aquatic insects in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Photo by John Rebers.

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
  • Don’t overwater your lawn.
  • Avoid pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
  • Consider replacing some grass with trees or shrubs, which return more water to the ground.
  • Compost or mulch leaves and grass clippings to keep them out of storm drains.
  • Pick up after pets.
  • Use rainbarrels to collect rainwater from rooftops.
  • Urge your public officials and developers to control impacts of new developments.
  • Become a “Water Sentinel” and help monitor water quality in your community. (Go to

What Government and Developers Can Do

  • Ensure that stormwater protections are incorporated into the design of the community.
  • Provide for ample greenspace to absorb excess rainwater.
  • Upgrade and maintain wastewater treatment facilities.

Find Out More
Read the Sierra Club report:
Sick Waters: Excess Nutrients Harm the Health of Our Waters.



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