EPA to protect beaches and waterways from raw sewage

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a new programme of improvements in the operation and maintenance of sewer systems in order to prevent waterway contamination and beach closures caused by contamination from the 40,000 raw sewage overflows occurring annually.


Sewage spills are the major cause of beach closures and health advisories, says the EPA, causing nearly 1500 each year, and threatening public health and billions of tourist dollars. Overflows of untreated sewage can also back up into basements, posing health threats and causing damage to property. With some sewers up to 100 years old, and many having failed to receive essential maintenance and repair, the problem is expected to increase as the US’s urban sewage system continue to age.

Frequent overflows are occurring for a number of reasons, such as excess infiltration of water from snowmelt or rain, broken pipes or badly connected sewer service lines, says the EPA. Overflows also occur through undersized systems, equipment failures, and the deteriorating sewer system.

The EPA’s new proposal would involve the strengthening of current Clean Water Act permit conditions for over 19,000 sewage treatment plants, resulting in improved management of capacity and maintenance programmes, including 4,800 ‘satellite’ sewage collection systems which would require permits for the first time. The new regulations would also require greater public information when overflows occur.

The EPA estimates that the new regulations would cost municipalities an additional $93.5 million to $126.5 million each year, including costs due to both planning and permitting. A collection system serving 7,500 people may need to spend an average of $6,000 each year in order to comply, says the EPA.

“Each year, too many beaches in America must be closed due to contamination by raw sewage that threatens public health,” said J Charles Fox, EPA Assistant Administrator. “Overflowing sewers are the major contributors to this problem. Today’s action is a step toward ensuring that sewer systems across America will be improved to help keep our beaches safe for swimming.”

The EPA’s proposal includes cost-effective approaches to controlling sewer overflows, says the environmental group, the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), which welcomes the plan. “The billions of dollars we spent in the 1970s and 1980s to build wastewater treatment plants is wasted when sewage never makes it to the treatment plant,” said Nancy Stoner, Director of the NRDC Clean Water Project. “That’s why NRDC supports regulatory controls that will eliminate raw sewage discharges in our streets, waterways and homes.”

The consultation period will last for 120 days. Comments can be sent by email to ow-docket@epamail.epa.gov, as an ASCII or WordPerfect document, using no special characters, or by sending an original and three copies by post to: W-00-08 Sanitary Sewer Overflow Comments Clerk, Water Docket (MC-4101), US Environmental Protection Agency, ICC Building, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20460.

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