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Déjà Poo All Over Again

The EPA is considering a controversial process to deal with sewage overflows. Again.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last month, in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ final game of spring training, a pool of sewage appeared on the team’s field in Chavez Ravine. The odor was so foul—also literally in foul territory—that the game was cut short in the fifth inning. The Dodgers officially earned the victory over their crosstown rivals, the Angels, but the result was hardly satisfying. “Crappy way to end the spring,” quipped pitcher Ross Stripling.

In a statement the next day, Dodgers management vaguely cited “issues with the drainage system” and said the team was “confident that there will be no further issues.” The season began as planned. Last week, the Dodgers announced that they will host the 2020 All-Star Game. The rancid pool has not returned—yet.

This is exactly how America more broadly has dealt with its poop problem for decades: wait for spills to happen, clean it up, and go on with life. But America’s infrastructure is getting older and leakier; metropolitan-area populations are booming; and climate change is causing bigger rainfall events that more frequently overwhelm decaying sewers. Wastewater contaminated with dangerous microbial bacteria—not to mention nutrients, metals, and pharmaceuticals—is increasingly overflowing into streets and bodies of water.

In response, the Environmental Protection Agency announced on Tuesday that it will be developing new rules for wastewater treatment plants during rain and snow storms. The goal, the EPA said, is to “optimize wastewater treatment during wet weather, which will protect both water quality and public health in the communities they serve.” Which sounds reasonable enough. What the EPA doesn’t explicitly say is that it’s exploring a rule to allow treatment plants to release sewage that hasn’t been fully decontaminated.

This is not the first time a Republican administration has considered allowing it. If the past is any indication, environmentalists have a messy fight on their hands—one they already fought, and won, more than a decade ago.

Here’s a sampling of sewage news from the past month alone. Nearly 8 million gallons of combined rainwater and untreated sewage spilled into New York’s Genesee River, and more than 4 million gallons of the same spilled in Baltimore. The Willamette River in Oregon was polluted with 1.3 million gallons of partially treated sewage, and, a few days later, with an “unknown amount” of raw sewage. A report last week from nine water conservation groups stated that between 28.8 million and 46.2 million gallons of sewage spilled in Alabama in 2016. “What these statistics show is there are [sanitary sewer overflows] happening on any given day across the state, and we accept that is the case,” attorney Eva Dillard told Rainy days are the worst of all.

To prevent these overflows, Trump’s EPA is exploring a process called “blending,” in which treatment plants combine partially treated sewage—in other words, partially free from contaminants—with fully treated sewage. Then, the plants dump the mixture into public waterways. This allows them to get rid of wastewater quickly, which in turn prevents treatment plants from getting flooded and overwhelmed when it rains a lot. The logic is that it’s better to release semi-contaminated water into the environment than raw sewage. Blending, according to the EPA’s press release, also helps “avoid a possible shutdown or damage to the water treatment plant.”

Blending is generally only permitted during very extreme weather—when it’s certain that the sewage systems are going to overflow, said Tom Ballestero, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Stormwater Center. But such certainty is subjective; wastewater treatment plant operators are unsure when they’re allowed to do this. Thus, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is starting a rulemaking process to give guidance on when and how blending can be used. “EPA is taking action on a new rule that will give municipalities much-needed clarity on blending at wastewater treatment plants,” Pruitt said in a statement.

The EPA didn’t offer much more in terms of detail, saying only that they would be reaching out to stakeholders. An agency spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment. But at least one environmental group is worried. “In short, it looks like Pruitt is resurrecting a bad idea from the first George W. Bush administration, which would allow cities to dump partially treated sewage into our waters,” said Larry Levine, the director of urban water infrastructure at the National Resource Defense Council. “This would release harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and other human pathogens into the water.”

In 2005, the Bush administration’s EPA proposed explicitly permitting the use of blending, but only under certain conditions: Mixed sewage couldn’t be discharged into environmentally sensitive areas, and treatment plants would be required to continuously monitor their blending. The EPA dropped the proposal, however, amid public outcry; the Republican-controlled House even voted to block it. “If EPA had stuck to its plan to open the sewage floodgates, it would have caused more sickness, more beach closings, more economic suffering for local communities, and greater harm to fish and other wildlife,” said Nancy Stoner, the director of NRDC’s clean water program, at the time of the decision.

Thirteen years later, sewage releases have ballooned—and they’re only going to get worse as the climate continues to warm and infrastructure continues to crumble. “I think the general public would be shocked to know how regularly wastewater combined with stormwater gets into our receiving waters,” Ballestero said. “It’s staggering.”

While blending removes most microbial contamination, the most serious threat that faces pose to human health, it does not remove nutrient pollution, which causes dead zones and harmful algal blooms. Nor does it remove pollutants from pharmaceuticals and other products humans consume. That’s why blending is only “a short-term fix,” said Ballestero. “I don’t think it should be a long-term fix.”

The long-term fix would be a multi-billion dollar investment in bigger, better sewage treatment infrastructure across the country—infrastructure that can handle more human waste and more extreme storms. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon, no matter how many infrastructure weeks the president announces this year.