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E-M:/ More on EPA sewage blending policy

Gambling with Public Health:
Authorizing Dilution Instead of Sewage Treatment During Rain Events

What is the draft blending guidance?

On November 3 EPA released its draft guidance that relaxes restrictions on discharging inadequately treated sewage into waterways during rain events. It allows publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) to divert sewage around secondary treatment units, and then combine the largely untreated sewage with fully treated wastewater prior to discharge.  Specifically, it authorizes primary solids removal and disinfection to substitute for biological treatment during wet weather.  EPA is accepting comments on the draft guidance through January 9, 2004.

Who supports it and why is it being proposed?

Sewer authorities have convinced the Bush administration that the answer to insufficient maintenance of aging sewer systems and capacity problems at some treatment plants during heavy rain is to relax current treatment requirements under the Clean Water Act. They claim that abandoning the requirement to treat all sewage will resolve “inconsistencies in regional enforcement” and avoid the cost of upgrading treatment facilities.
Why is this a bad idea?

Blending is bad for public health.   Blended sewage has significantly higher levels of pollution than sewage that has undergone full secondary treatment.  Although solids removal plus disinfection successfully removes some bacteria, it is not effective at removing viruses, helminth worms, or parasites.  Viruses and parasites, such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium, cause the majority of waterborne outbreaks.  In contrast, biological treatment is very effective at removing viruses and other pathogens from wastewater.  This distinction is critical, because public health studies have documented that more than half of the waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States in the past fifty years were preceded by heavy rainfall.  The Centers for Disease Control estimates 7.1 million cases of mild to moderate and 560,000 cases of moderate to severe infectious waterborne disease in the United States each year. 

Blending is bad for the environment.  Allowing polluters to discharge inadequately treated sewage into our nation’s waters will have adverse, long-term environmental consequences.  Sewage in our waterways closes beaches, kills fish, shuts down shellfish beds, and causes gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses.  In 2000 alone, sewage contamination caused or contributed to 20% of the 11,270 beach closings and advisories. 

Blending is illegal.  The Clean Water Act requires all wastewater to meet secondary treatment standards prior to discharge.  Blended sewage does not meet current statutory or regulatory requirements, and EPA has taken several enforcement actions against sewer operators in which EPA has clearly stated in writing that blending violates the Clean Water Act.

For more information contact Nancy Stoner at  or (202) 289-2394


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