A Bush Administration proposal to routinely allow partially treated sewage into America's waterways could face a roadblock in Congress next week, when the House of Representatives is expected to vote next week on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget. Included is the opportunity to support the Save Our Water From Sewage Act. The bipartisan amendment to stop increased sewage dumping would block EPA from finalizing a proposal that allows an increase in the use of "blending", a process where partially treated waste is dumped into lakes, rivers and streams.
Currently under the Clean Water Act, partially treated sewage may...
be released only in a dire emergency, such as a hurricane. Otherwise the process known as blending is illegal, and waste treatment must be carried out in three phases -- first screening for solids in the waste, second phase removing most of the viruses, parasites and other pollutants, and the third phase treating sewage for bacteria. If the EPA proposal is finalized, anytime it rains or during snow melts, sewage treatment facilities would be allowed to forgo the second phase of water treatment, which neutralizes viruses and pathogens in the wastewater and aids in the effectiveness of the third phase of treatment.
Supporters of the Bush Administration blending plan, including sewage treatment plant operators, say that blending will fill the gap in inconsistencies in sewage enforcement. But public health advocates find this unacceptable. "Everyone lives downstream of somebody's sewage treatment," says Nancy Stoner, clean water director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "So we all face a threat to our health, economy and environment if EPA lets wastewater plants routinely discharge largely untreated sewage into our lakes, rivers and streams."  The EPA proposal also helps treatment facilities skirt the cost of upgrading, a costly affair, especially since funds for modernization of sewage treatment plants received a substantial cut in the 2005 EPA budget. 
The partially treated sewage would flow directly into lakes, rivers and streams -- carrying with it deadly parasites, viruses and bacteria, including dysentery, cholera, e coli, hepatitis, and gastroenteritis. The Center for Disease Control reports that each year the health of 8 million people is adversely affected by water contaminated with sewage waste, and 900 people die each year from illnesses related to exposure.  Under the proposed rules, exposure levels will increase if blending becomes regular practice. Dr. Joan Rose, a Michigan State University professor, explained that there is a 50% chance of getting sick from swimming in an area adjacent to a sewage output point where only the first and third stage of treatment are used, whereas the risk is less than .1% from swimming in an area where second stage treatment and disinfection is used. 
In the long run, blending has costly financial consequences as well: loss of revenue from beach closings, increased costs for treating drinking water, public health and medical expenses, and harm to fish and wildlife. Even EPA's own water chief, Ben Grumbles, voiced doubts about blending: "The basic point, which is at the heart and soul of the Clean Water Act, is that dilution is not the solution to pollution. You need to treat the sewage. Blending isn't the solution." 
 Natural Resources Defense Council fact sheet.
 Sewage Blending Policy, Clean Water Action fact sheet, Jan. 2005.
 NRDC release, May 11, 2005.