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EPA Report Illustrates Serious Sewage Pollution Problem in New York and New Jersey

Release Date: 07/29/2011
Contact Information: John Senn (212) 637-3667, senn.john@epa.gov

(New York, N.Y.) Controlling sewage that gets washed into local waterways when it rains is critical to protecting water quality. Rainwater flows down storm drains, carrying pollution from the streets, and if it is a heavy rain, causes sewage to overflow into rivers, lakes and streams. Sewer overflows, especially from combined sewer systems that carry sewage from buildings and stormwater from street drains, are a major environmental problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has prepared an important report, Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of the Public’s Water, to answer commonly asked questions about combined sewer overflows. To read or download a copy of the report, visit http://www.epa.gov/region2/water/. To see an illustration of how serious a problem this is in Brooklyn, go to: http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/29/sewage-overflow-in-new-york-believe-it/.

Many of the sewer systems in New York State and New Jersey and some in Puerto Rico are combined systems that carry sewage from homes and businesses as well as rainwater collected from street drains. When they overflow during heavy rains, the rainwater mixes with sewage and results in raw sewage being directly discharged into water bodies. These discharges are called combined sewer overflows and can pose serious environmental and public health risks.

“Clean water is vital to people’s health and our economy and is a priority for the EPA,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck. “We’ve seen improvements in water quality since the passage of the Clean Water Act forty years ago, but there is much more to be done to protect our rivers, harbors, lakes and streams. EPA’s new report provides important information on the laws that protect our waterways and the actions that can be taken to reduce water pollution.”

The following is a sample of the information contained in Keeping Raw Sewage and Contaminated Stormwater Out of the Public’s Water:

Many communities have separate sewer systems for wastewater collection – an independent sewer system that carries sewage from buildings and another for rainwater, also referred to as stormwater. The stormwater is sent directly to lakes, rivers and streams, while domestic sewage is transported to wastewater treatment plants, where it is treated to remove pathogens and other contaminants.

Combined sewer systems, on the other hand, are designed to transport sewage, industrial wastewater and rainwater runoff in the same pipes to wastewater treatment plants. They are remnants of the country’s early infrastructure and are typically found in older cities. Combined sewer systems serve about 40 million people in roughly 772 communities nationwide. Most communities with combined sewer systems are located in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, and the Pacific Northwest.

Most of the time, combined sewer systems are able to transport all of the wastewater to a treatment plant, where it is treated and then discharged into a water body. During periods of heavy rainfall or snowmelt, however, the volume of wastewater traveling through 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, lakes or other water bodies. These overflows, called combined sewer overflows, contain not only stormwater but also pollutants such as untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris.

Stormwater contains pollutants, including oil, grease and toxic substances, picked up as rain washes across roads or fields. These pathogens, solids and toxic pollutants may be discharged directly to local waters when it rains, resulting in a discharge that exceeds water quality standards. They pose risks to human health, threaten aquatic habitats and life, and impair the use and enjoyment of the nation’s waterways.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, combined sewer discharges are prohibited without a permit. In December 2000, Congress amended the Clean Water Act by adding a section that requires each permit issued for a discharge from a municipal combined sewer system to “conform” to a national combined sewer overflow policy. The policy is a comprehensive national strategy to ensure that local governments, permitting agencies, entities that establish water quality standards and the public engage in a comprehensive and coordinated planning effort to achieve combined sewer overflow controls that ultimately meet health and environmental standards.

For more information about requirements of the Clean Water Act and how EPA protects the nation’s water, visit http://water.epa.gov/.

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