State Moves to Deal with Dirty Problem — Raw Sewage in Waterways

Final permits issued to force 25 cities to address pollution from so-called combined sewer overflows -- but necessary funding may not be forthcoming

The state yesterday issued final permits to deal with long-standing pollution problems from hundreds of sewer systems that spew raw sewage into many waterways, including the Hudson, Passaic, and Delaware rivers, during times of heavy rain.

The long-awaited permits will force 25 cities and utilities to develop strategies to reduce pollution from so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs), where both sewage and stormwater are directed to wastewater treatment plants, which cannot properly treat the waste when there is heavy rainfall or snow melt.

While the permits will require cities and utilities to come up with plans to reduce the pollution, there is little money available for them to actually fix the problem, which by some estimates could cost from $2 billion to $9 billion or more. The permits give cities and utilities up to five years to develop plans, although in some cases it could be only three years.

“Without the funding, the planning is a mirage,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If you don’t have the money to fix things, every time it rains the pollution keeps coming.’’

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which issued the permits, said New Jersey will continue to provide low-coast loans and principal forgiveness through a special trust fund used to deal with costs of upgrading sewage treatment plants. That fund, however, is already strapped by enormous needs.

By one estimate $36 billion needs to be invested in the state’s water infrastructure, most of it upgrading wastewater treatment plants.

Still, some praised the DEP for finally beginning to address the problem of combined sewer overflows after decades of neglect — even though policymakers have long recognized the pollution problems they caused, a vulnerability highlighted during Hurricane Sandy when billions of gallons from sewage treatment plants were dumped into state waterways.

“Cities will not be able to afford these upgrades unless their investments also help to revitalize downtowns and neighborhoods,’’ said Chris Sturm, director of state policy at New Jersey Future. “But ratepayers, businesses will be supportive if they can see tangible improvements — better waterfront recreation, new parks, and less flooding.’’

The costs to deal with the problem could be reduced if cities move to adopt strategies to capture stormwater runoff, which some urban areas have implemented, such as Philadelphia.

The programs aim to reduce stormwater running into wastewater systems by using “rain barrels” (holding tanks for later release), establishing rain gardens, and reducing pavement where rain flows into sewers.

Chris Daggett, president and chief executive officer of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, called the permits an important first step in upgrading the state’s combined sewer systems.

“It’s an opportune moment for communities and utility authorities to put in place innovative, green solutions, — including parks, gardens and streetscapes — that have proven to help address flooding, reduce costs, and keep our waterways clean,’’ Daggett said.

Sturm noted that the federal Environmental Protection Agency also has adopted provisions to allow communities to finance long-term implementation of the plans based on customers willingness to pay for them.

Judith Enck, regional administrator for the EPA, applauded the state’s actions. “Exposure to polluted water containing sewage can cause a host of problems,’’ she said, such aspolluting drinking-water supplies, closing beaches and shellfish beds, and harming fish.

Tittel disagreed. “It sounds good but it is not going to do anything. We need to find a way to fund this,’’ he said.

Others, who represent utilities, said they are changing their practices to deal with the problem.

“In Camden, we are taking a multipronged approach,’’ said Andrew Kricun, executive director of the Camden County Municipalities Authority, which has 36 outfalls. “Specifically we are installing rain gardens and other green infrastructure to reduce stormwater to the CSO system.’’

Debbie Mans, executive director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper, said the proposal may help reduce the “staggering” 23 billion gallons of raw sewage discharged in the waterways each year.

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