EPA vows 'flexibility' on sewer overflows in victory for strapped cities

The Obama administration trumpeted a record $4.7 billion settlement with St. Louis over the city's chronic sewer overflows in August, calling it "historic in its scope and importance."

But St. Louis officials were less enthusiastic, releasing a statement highlighting the near-tripling of local sewer and water rates the agreement would spur over 10 to 15 years. As the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District put it: "[T]his is billions of dollars that will come from the pocketbook of St. Louis ratepayers -- with little to no state or federal assistance -- and will be unavailable for other critical needs in our community" (E&ENews PM, Aug. 4).

Such laments from local officials have trailed the decade-old federal crackdown on municipal sewer systems that during heavy rains funnel untreated wastes into waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act. The settlements have forced cities to spend billions of dollars to rebuild sprawling networks of pipes that in some cases date to the 19th century.

U.S. EPA now says it feels the cities' pain. Nancy Stoner, the agency's water chief, issued a guidance late last week instructing regulators to use "flexibility" afforded under current policy when forcing cities to repair, upgrade and expand creaky wastewater and stormwater systems.

"As we move forward with our work, we must be mindful that many of our state and local government partners find themselves facing difficult financial conditions," Stoner wrote.


EPA released the document at the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in Washington. The group has been lobbying for financial relief for two years in the Clean Water Act settlements. The mayors praised the guidance.

"While we share the goal of clean water, mayors must also safeguard the fiscal health of their cities," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "EPA is demonstrating that they are serious about moving forward in a true partnership with mayors across the country."

Environmentalists say they broadly support EPA's taking a more flexible approach to the issue, but they worry EPA might go soft on overflows. "The key will be to see that the agency does so in a way that doesn't sacrifice environmental quality," said Larry Levine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

At issue are combined sewer systems that collect both stormwater and wastewater. During downpours, they overflow and dump untreated sewage and street runoff into rivers, lakes, estuaries and even basements of buildings.

Overflows carry bacteria, heavy metals and nutrients that can threaten human health and choke aquatic life.

Over the past 10 years, EPA and the Department of Justice have sought to stop the overflows by suing cities and striking settlement agreements that require massive upgrades. As a result, at least 40 cities or sewer systems across the United States have entered into such agreements with EPA since 1999.

The agreements tend to require rebuilding pipelines, expanding treatment plants and digging underground tunnels big enough for subway trains. The tunnels act as storage tanks for stormwater that would normally pour into waterways and allow time for treatment plants to clean up the mess.

As part of its 2003 consent decree with the federal government, Washington, D.C., broke ground last month on a $2.6 billion tunnel-building project, the largest since construction of the metropolitan area's subway system. The tunnel will be 23 feet wide and 100 feet deep and will extend 4.5 miles from the sewage-treatment plant along the east bank of the Potomac River, crossing under the Anacostia River and extending to RFK Stadium on the city's east side.

Settlements struck from 2008 through 2010 will require local utilities to invest $9.6 billion in such pollution-control measures and pay $3.5 million in civil penalties, according to EPA data. EPA estimates those actions will lead to the reduction, treatment or elimination of 242 million pounds of pollutants during the first years of those systems' being brought into Clean Water Act compliance.

Just prior to the St. Louis settlement, EPA and DOJ struck a $3 billion agreement with a Cleveland-area sewer district (E&ENews PM, Dec. 22, 2010). A spokeswoman there said ratepayers would see a 13 percent rate hike every year from 2012 to 2016 to cover the cost of the upgrades and penalties.

Filling in the blanks

EPA's three-page guidance calls for using an "integrated planning process" to develop wastewater system upgrades. The memo calls for "cost-effective and protective solutions and implementing the most important projects first."

The guidance also says the agency "strongly encourages" the use of green infrastructure, a less-expensive approach that makes use of roof gardens, permeable pavement and grass drainage swales to manage stormwater.

EPA vows the shift in policy won't mean lax enforcement. The memo says "we are not suggesting that existing regulatory or permitting standards that protect public health and water on which communities depend be lowered."

A more detailed "framework" will soon be released, the memo says, to identify key components of wastewater-system planning, propose steps for identifying cities that might use new approaches and offer tips for the ways they can be best implemented.

In the past year, EPA officials conducted an internal review of negotiations involved in crafting more than 36 sewer-overflow agreements that are now in place, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The memo reflects changes needed in such negotiations, the conference said -- in particular, that regulators should consider how best to focus and prioritize spending to achieve good environmental results.

"The EPA has been a strong partner for cities regarding stormwater management, and this policy ... will guide cities as we strive to create sustainable, healthy and efficient systems," said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, the conference's vice president.

But Jeff Odefey, director of stormwater programs at the environmental group American Rivers, said he would withhold judgment until EPA releases its draft policy framework.

"Conceptually, we're pretty supportive of an approach that reflects this," he said, "but we really are going to have to see what the plan looks like."

Water utilities such as St. Louis' are watching the new developments closely, even though it's unclear whether the new guidance or forthcoming planning framework will apply to settlements already on the books.

"We just don't know," said Lance LeComb, public relations manager for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

In a letter to the mayors group last December, EPA enforcement chief Cynthia Giles emphasized the agency's flexibility, pointing to changes to the sewage overflow settlement with Indianapolis that would save the city $444 million (Greenwire, Nov. 9).

Some cities with Clean Water Act agreements have moved to reopen discussions with EPA about shifting to less-expensive green infrastructure solutions. The District of Columbia is among the cities pursuing such a change.

"No city or utility has ever done a sustained and large-scale pilot study of green roofs, trees and porous pavement to help in those areas," D.C. Water General Manager George Hawkins said. "We hope to do just that."

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