The Environmental Protection Agency is close to issuing new guidelines making it easier for sewage authorities to dump partially treated wastewater during heavy rainfalls, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.
EPA officials said they had not made a decision, but agency staffers have begun to brief senior political appointees on the plan, which is outlined in a 10-page document titled "Final Policy." The proposal, which was first aired in November 2003, would allow authorities to release a blend of fully treated and partially treated sewage during peak flows.
Some scientists, environmentalists and state and local officials object to blending because it could foster the spread of disease. But others, including local sewage agencies and some government officials, say the approach strikes a safe middle ground between releasing untreated sewage and spending billions on plant upgrades.
The debate over how to process waste comes as much of the nation's wastewater treatment infrastructure is crumbling, and federal officials estimate it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to cope with the increased demand for sewage treatment.
"Blending is acceptable if the sewage is treated enough to meet Clean Water Act requirements at the end of the pipe," said Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant EPA administrator. "Never doing any blending would lead to multiple billions of dollars in costs."
Sewage treatment consists of two stages. Plants first remove solids from the waste and then use bacteria to kill the dangerous viruses, parasites and bacteria that remain. During heavy rains, however, the wastewater in many systems becomes diluted by storm runoff and cannot be fully processed to remove the pathogens.
Under current policies, plants are supposed to discharge partially treated waste only when there is no alternative, but the EPA's proposal would allow them to do it more often as long as they monitor the waste and ensure it meets federal water quality standards. Although the permits governing wastewater treatment are usually issued by state agencies, they look to the federal government for guidance.
Nancy Stoner, who runs the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean water project, said the new policy "means more people will get sick and more people will die. This is really a very significant issue from a public health standpoint."
Joan B. Rose, a water pollution microbiologist at Michigan State University, said the EPA's proposal ignores scientific findings that link wastewater to the spread of disease, adding that the Clean Water Act does not cover many unhealthful viruses and parasites.
"Sewage is the source of a lot of major pathogens," Rose said, adding that one study found the risk of disease from blended waste was 100 times greater than that associated with fully treated waste.
The EPA estimates swimmers experience 3,500 to 5,500 cases of "highly credible gastrointestinal illness" each year because of improper sewage treatment.
Sewer authorities and city governments argue that blending does not pose a major health risk and makes more sense than spending money on expensive upgrades. Without blending, said Ken Kirk, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, the industry will have to "spend $200 billion to fix a problem that doesn't need fixing."
Last week, the National League of Cities endorsed the EPA's plan as long as the blended waste meets federal water quality standards and has undergone initial treatment.
"The feeling was particularly in disadvantaged areas and some cities with serious infrastructure problems, this would save ratepayers a huge amount of money while protecting their water quality," said Joanna Liberman, the league's senior policy analyst.
The EPA has often joined with environmentalists in pressing for plant upgrades in a number of communities. Last week, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority agreed to build three underground water storage tunnels over the next 20 years to eliminate the sewage overflows that dump as much as 3 billion gallons of raw waste into local rivers and creeks each year. In Michigan, 50 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage flows annually into the state's waterways.
John Dunn, chief engineer for the D.C. authority, said he was waiting for guidance from the EPA because blending "should reduce our capital costs while maintaining the same effluent quality."
Jim Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, which sued for the D.C. plant upgrade, said he would oppose the new EPA policy if "it waters down the [progress] we've seen with this long-term plan."