EPA set to act on dumping
>The Milwaukee Sentinel reports that persistent dumping of raw sewage by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and local communities violates federal law and calls for formal action. The EPA is on the case and pursuing justice.
That action could range from a negotiated deal to improve sewers to fines of $25,000 a day or more if MMSD or others balk.
"While emphasizing the EPA's desire for a negotiated agreement to resolve dumping problems, fines haven't been ruled out", said James Filippini, the EPA's chief regional enforcement officer.
"The EPA will work with the state Department of Natural Resources and MMSD on a plan to eliminate sanitary sewer dumping in the Milwaukee area", Filippini said. The EPA tries to avoid lawsuits, and when it does sue, settles 90% of its cases without going to trial.
"While MMSD is a major EPA focus, about half the 28 communities that are served by MMSD also have had sewage dumping problems", Filippini said. "Those suburbs, which he did not list, also will need to make improvements", he said.
"We do not do this in an arbitrary mode," he said. A formal agreement outlining steps to take could be specified in sewer operating permits issued by the DNR to MMSD or to local communities, he said. They also could be written into some other legally binding agreement or - if MMSD or a community resists making needed improvements - the EPA could sue, Filippini said.
The EPA did not specify what steps should be taken, but suggested three broad categories: increasing sewer or treatment plant capacity, reducing rainwater leaking into sewers and doing preventive maintenance.
Anne Spray Kinney, MMSD's executive director, did not respond to an interview request. The district's top lawyer, Michael McCabe, said MMSD's agreement to build a new deep tunnel link on the northwest side should provide plenty of sewer capacity. "MMSD's effort to find ways to fix leaky sewers provides the best method to prevent dumping", McCabe said.
According to McCabe, the EPA letter on curbing dumping was aimed at the suburbs. However, Filippini said the letter was aimed at dumping violations by MMSD as well as local communities.
MMSD dumped about 100 million gallons of combined storm and sanitary sewage Tuesday after a heavy rainstorm. The sewage was dumped into local rivers and Lake Michigan.
"The dumping started around 8 a.m., when the deep tunnels were about 60% filled", said Mike Link, project manager for United Water Service, the private firm that operates the sewer system for MMSD. "The extra space in the tunnels was reserved for more anticipated sewage flow", he said.
MMSD has dumped more than 13 billion gallons of untreated wastewater since the deep tunnels opened in late 1993, spawning criticism and a DNR investigation. The $3 billion tunnels and related sewer improvements were supposed to preclude sewage dumping in all but the most extreme weather emergencies.
The focus of the EPA's concern is less than 1 billion gallons of that total that came from sanitary sewers on 19 occasions since 1996; the rest was more diluted sewage from combined sewers that carry storm water and sanitary waste.
Milwaukee and some suburbs also have done some sanitary sewage dumping in much smaller quantities that the EPA labeled violations. Milwaukee dumped 11 times since 1996, according to a DNR summary.
Suburbs that have dumped include: West Allis, 19 times since 1996; Brookfield, 15; Bayside, 10; Elm Grove and Whitefish Bay, nine each; Menomonee Falls, eight; Mequon and River Hills, seven each; Fox Point and Brown Deer, five each; Cudahy and New Berlin, three each; and Muskego, two.
Such dumping "has the potential to cause water quality or health problems," violates the federal Clean Water Act and warrants "priority attention," according to a letter from the EPA to state officials.
The EPA letter, dated June 1, was the agency's formal response to a DNR study on sewage dumping issued in March. The DNR report summarized dumping activity and recommended imposing a higher standard for MMSD sewer capacity. The EPA letter said the agency needs more information to determine whether that approach makes sense.
"We want to leave all options open," Filippini said. The EPA letter also called for:
* A stricter DNR rule outlining instances in which sewage dumping is permissible. The state rule has more exceptions and is "more liberal" than federal law, which supersedes state law.
* Better regulation of instances in which sewage is only partially treated at sewage plants. During periods of heavy sewage flow, MMSD sometimes skips one stage of the treatment process to avoid overwhelming treatment plants. The DNR does not now require MMSD to report that.
In addition, the EPA letter raised the possibility of requiring partial treatment of sewage at the various points where dumping occurs, although a DNR official said that would be expensive.
In contrast to EPA's determination that some MMSD dumping violated federal law, state officials are non-committal.
Jay Hochmuth, a DNR administrator monitoring sewage dumping issues, said "the DNR is still reviewing MMSD's dumping to determine whether it constitutes violations of state law. MMSD has not yet responded to DNR requests for detailed data on how it handled major storms since the deep tunnels opened"."It's taken more time than we thought it would," Hochmuth said.
State Rep. Neal Kedzie (R-Walworth) called the EPA letter "a soft threat" to the DNR to bring its dumping regulations into compliance with federal law.
Kedzie renewed his call for a state audit of MMSD and said he is frustrated that the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee has not acted on his request.