State Wants Sewer Plants to Plan for 500-Year Storms, Extended Outages

New regulations hope to avoid disasters that followed Sandy, when crippled facilities dumped billions of gallons of sewage into NJ waterways

When wastewater treatment plants lost power during Hurricane Sandy, they dumped untreated sewage into NJ's waterways.
In an effort to prevent raw sewage from spilling into New Jersey’s waterways, the state is beginning to require sewer plants to plan for 500-year storms and to prepare for extended outages of up to 14 days.

The new requirements are incorporated in draft permits issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection to wastewater treatment plants. They are part of an effort to deal with the recurring problem of untreated sewage mixing with runoff from storms, taxing the capacity of facilities to remove the pollutants, often to the detriment of rivers and bays.

For 21 of New Jersey’s oldest cities, the situation is particularly acute. The issue revolves around so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) — century old systems designed to remove sewage and stormwater quickly. There are 217 such outfalls in northern New Jersey, all of which face new environmental mandates to address these water-quality problems.

The trouble, long recognized by the water sector and policymakers but never really addressed comprehensively, dramatically surfaced during Hurricane Sandy. Ninety-one wastewater facilities either flooded or lost power, spewing billions of gallons of raw sewage into the state’s waters, often for days. Many water-supply plants also were knocked out by the storm, leading to boil-water advisories for many communities.

New Jersey is beginning to address the situation by proposing to allocate $65 million in federal money to help those plants come up with alternative energy supplies that will kick in if the power grid fails on a widespread scale, which is what happened during Sandy. The money is to be distributed by a new Energy Resiliency Bank — the first of its kind in the nation — that would help critical facilities like sewage treatment plants to continue to operate if there are outages on the grid.

The new requirements were mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 office, according to people familiar with a settlement reached with the state DEP.

New Jersey Future, a group that has focused extensively on the problems posed by combined sewer overflows, praised the new initiative, saying it looks at both resiliency of the systems and the problem of flooding. “We have seen it was a big Achilles heel during Sandy,’’ said Chris Sturm, senior director of policy for the group.

“It’s extremely significant,’’ said Bill Wolfe, director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, who first reported the changes on his blog, “It will make a difference.’’

Others said the new requirements stem from the federal agency’s position of addressing concerns about sea-level rise and storm surges — a big factor that led to flooding at sewage-treatment plants during Sandy — especially when grants of millions of dollars have been made available to address the problems.

“They are getting stringent so that money doesn’t get washed out to sea,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

According to critics, the 500-year storm requirement was part of the settlement because the state has repeatedly declined to address specifically either climate change or sea-level rise in various regulatory policies developed by the Christie administration. (These storms are considered to be so severe that they only occur once every 500 years; with climate change, they are expected to occur more frequently.)

The DEP did not respond to questions about the new requirements, nor did the EPA’s regional office.

Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, an organization representing wastewater treatment plants, said the group has been working with the DEP since Sandy to address resiliency issues.

“There’s a lot of good things that everyone agrees needs to be done,’’ she said, adding some of them will be “probably expensive.’’

Gallos noted some facilities managed to remain open during Sandy, such as the Joint Meeting of Union and Essex counties plant, which kept operating because it has a small and efficient power plant on site. That is the type of project targeted for other sewage plants under the Energy Resiliency Bank.