WASHINGTON - August 26 - The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced that more must be done to prevent sewage overflows that threaten health and water quality. Yet the Bush administration has proposed to cut funding for programs to help local communities update their sewage systems. The administration also halted proposed requirements for improving sewage system maintenance and warning communities when the overflows occur.
"The EPA says sewage overflows are a serious health threat but the Bush administration is shelving solutions that would prevent overflows," said Ed Hopkins, director of Sierra Club's Environmental Quality Program. "Sewage overflows pose serious health risks to communities. But instead of working with localities to prevent sewage overflows and to warn the public when they occur, the Bush administration is turning a blind eye to the problem, cutting necessary funding for updating and maintaining sewage systems."
The Bush administration put the brakes on a plan that would warn communities about overflows. In January 2001, the EPA proposed new requirements for fixing outdated sewer systems. The proposed rule would have protected the public from raw sewage by requiring improvements in the capacity, maintenance and operation of municipal sewage treatment systems. In addition, it would have required public reporting and notification of sewer overflows. The total cost would have amounted to less than two dollars-$1.92- per household per year. But the Bush administration, concerned about the costs of the proposal, blocked the proposal and refused to take any action, leaving people's health at risk and protections against sewage overflows on permanent hold.
Further, the Bush administration has proposed massive cuts in funding to help municipal sewage treatment systems do a better job. In Fiscal Year 2005, for example, the administration proposed cutting $500 million for sewage treatment, a reduction of almost one-third - costs that financially strapped states and municipalities cannot afford.
Sewage overflows are bad for people's health, the economy, and the environment. The EPA's new report estimates that up to 75,000 discharges of raw sewage occur each year from sanitary sewer systems, releasing between 3 billion and 10 billion gallons of untreated wastewater. That sewage ends up in our drinking water sources, streams and homes. The threat to people's health is serious and widespread. Raw sewage typically contains bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that can cause a variety of illnesses, from mild gastroenteritis (stomach cramps and diarrhea) to life-threatening illnesses such as cholera, dysentery and infectious hepatitis.
Sewage overflows inflict significant health and cleanup costs. Experts indicate that billions of dollars in health care are spent each year on the estimated 7.1 million mild-to-moderate cases and the 560,000 moderate-to-severe cases of infectious waterborne disease in the United States. The EPA has estimated that 400,000 basement backups occur each year at a cost of approximately $600 million. Closing sewage-contaminated beaches costs our economy $1-$2 billion each year, according to the EPA. Fish kills and shellfish bed closures impose further costs.