Raw Sewage and the Chesapeake Watershed

The Chesapeake Watershed in the eastern U.S. covers over 500 miles, reaching north to Otsego Lake, NY and south to Virginia Beach, and traveling west to Blacksburg, VA and east to Ocean City, MD.  It’s been called a “giant, sprawling system of rivers that all drain into one shallow tidal basin—the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries.” (map).  It’s home to more than 3,600 species of plants and animals, with over 15 million people residing in it.   

A major river in the Chesapeake Watershed is the Anacostia River which extends from Montgomery County, MD through Washington, DC, flowing directly into the Potomac River (photo).  This week we learned that raw sewage has been “leaking” into the Anacostia River and is now polluting the watershed. 

According to the Washington Post, officials from the District of Columbia’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) discovered two 8-inch holes in a major sewer line which carries untreated sewage to the region’s Blue Plains treatment plant.

“John Dunn, WASA’s chief engineer and its deputy manager, said a diver discovered that a contractor had accidentally drilled two holes through the top and bottom of a pipe. The concrete line is about seven feet below the surface of the river.” (here)

WASA officials did not quantify the amount of raw sewage released from the drilled holes. Yet WASA’s Mr. Dunn stated, “I don’t think there was any public health hazard,” adding (perhaps in an attempt to reassure residents concerned about the Anacostia’s health) that more untreated sewage is released into the Anacostia on rainy days when the system is overwhelmed by runoff.  

That’s supposed to make us feel better?   The fact that raw sewage is dumped routinely into the Anacostia because of an antiquated combined sewer system doesn’t absolve it of its adverse environmental (and public health) impact.

Briefly, combined sewer systems:

“…are designed to collect rainwater runoff, domestic sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. Most of the time, combined sewer systems transport all of their wastewater to a sewage treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged to a water body. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the wastewater volume in a combined sewer system can exceed the capacity of the sewer system or treatment plant. For this reason, combined sewer systems are designed to overflow occasionally and discharge excess wastewater directly to nearby streams, rivers, or other water bodies.  These overflows, called combined sewer overflows (CSOs), contain not only stormwater but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris.” (from EPA site, more here

More than 12 years ago, the US EPA issued a national framework to control combined sewer overflows in the 772 municipalities which have these systems.  This 1994 policy was codified into the Wet Weather Water Quality Act of 2000, which also authorized $1.5 billion in grants to localities to reduce these polluting overflows.  In 2004, however, a document prepared by EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) noted:

“A significant number of communities with CSOs have not implemented the nine minimum controls, do not have a long-term CSO control plan in place.  …Given the scope and the serious impact of overflows, addressing CSOs as an OECA national priority has the potential to result in significant human health and environmental benefits.”

DC WASA has a long-term plan to control overflows from its combined sewer system, but their strategy has followed a rocky path.  After submitting their final long-term control plan to US EPA and the DC Department of Health in August 2002, it faced a legal challenge by the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Kingman Park Civic Association, Friends of the Earth, and others, for failing to meet Clean Water Act and other federal environmental health standards.  The parties negotiated a settlement in 2005 (consent decree here); now the major obstacle for implementing the overflow-prevention system is funding the improvements.  WASA estimates the cost at $2.1 billion.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-NY) writes at Congress Blog about a recent congressional hearing on the need for public notification of sewer overflows.  In his post “Is There Sewage in Your Water?” Bishop says:

“I agree with the suggestions of one witness from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District that the best way to avoid human health and environmental concerns from sewer overflows is to ensure that they never occur in the first place.” …

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s own numbers on annual sewer overflows are staggering. For combined sewer systems, EPA estimates that 850 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage is discharged annually into local waters.” …

“We need to make sure that the public is aware of sewer overflows to give individuals the opportunity to stay out of harms’ way. It makes no sense for certain owners and operators of local sewerage agencies to know where and when overflows are occurring but to avoid making this information readily available to the public. This defies common sense.”

Amen.  If my local sewer authority knows that untreated feces, urine and toilet paper are flowing into the river, yes, the public has a right to know about it. 

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