Sierran Masthead

Issues on Combined Sewer Pollution Reaching Critical Point

by Tom Neltner

The issues over combined sewer overflows (CSO) are reaching a critical stage. Combined sewer systems combine stormwater, sewage, and wastewater into one sewer. They were built in the early 1900s. New combined sewer systems have been prohibited for 30 years. But they remain a legacy in 105 communities in the state.

Urban sprawl has made the problem worse in most communities, because the flow from new developments often goes through the old combined sewers—using up valuable capacity formerly reserved for storm water.

This summer, the Water Pollution Control Board should be finalizing a rule that would require Indiana’s 105 CSO communities to notify the public when a combined sewer is overflowing or is about to overflow. The key issue is whether signs and press releases are enough, or if phone calls should be made to all residents who ask to be notified. The current proposed rule requires a phone call to everyone who asks to get the notice.

Last December, the Water Pollution Control Board directed the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to revise its policy regarding sewer connections that increase CSOs. The board’s hearing officer, after five hearings around the state, supported the Sierra Club’s demand for a “no net increase in sewage overflows” policy and asked that IDEM consider the wet-weather impacts of new sewer connections.

IDEM has tentatively rejected the hearing officer’s opinion and decided that the issue is not whether sewer increases are OK but how big the increases should be. The agency has drafted a policy that would allow a CSO community to accept new flows even if the city has as many as 17 dry-weather overflows each year—overflows, which have long been prohibited.

If the city were refusing to follow the mandated CSO planning process, IDEM would still allow new sewer connections as long as the city had fewer than 8 days of illegal dry weather combined sewer overflows.

Finally, 60 of the 105 CSO communities were required to submit a Long-Term Control Plan to IDEM by May 1. These plans will determine how clean Hoosier streams will be for our future generations.

Is it any surprise that 44 percent of Indiana’s 484 impaired water bodies are impaired for E. coli—the primary pollutant from a combined sewer overflow? The Sierra Club may need your help in helping the O’Bannon administration realize that more sewage in our urban streams in the interests of urban sprawl and subsidizing development is the wrong direction for Indiana.

If you are not already involved in the CSO issue at the local level, get involved. Review the plans in your community or the community near where you use the stream. Find out how many overflows a year will be tolerated and how as much as $4 billion in public funds statewide will be spent.

Copyright © 2007 Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club, all rights reserved.[6/28/02]efp

Summer 2002