Believe it or not, there is no requirement for operators of sewage treatment facilities to notify the public when raw sewage is discharged into our rivers and streams.

The Environment Protection Agency estimates more then 860 billion gallons — yes, billions — of raw sewage is discharged into our waters each year. And right now, no one is required to inform citizens when this happens. These citizens are the people who might be in direct contact with the water where  raw sewage has been discharged. They may be fishing, boating, or even deciding whether to allow their children to go swimming.

Now S. 937, the Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act, is pending before the U.S. Senate. This bill, like the House version that has already passed, would require monitoring, annual reporting, and public notification within 24 hours of a sewage overflow that has the potential to affect human health. Don’t we, the people, have the right to be notified when raw sewage is discharged into our waterways so that we can make an informed decision about whether it is safe to be in contact with the water?

I say absolutely.

Our late Sen. Edmund Muskie, the father of Clean Water Act, said in a 1972 speech: “We have finally come to realize that these resources are limited; that nobody has invented any more air and water lately; that we have the same fixed supply that Adam and Eve knew; and that it must serve the needs of more and more people, and all the activities that are related to the well being of the human family.” And I would add all of the critter families too.

Combined sewer overflows, CSOs for short, are a legacy of the past that allowed raw sewage to flow into the storm drain system beneath city streets. Years ago, storm drains were piped directly to the river. When the Lewiston-Auburn Wastewater Treatment Facility was built, the combined system was connected to the facility, which improved the river’s water quality.

Unfortunately, the wastewater facility was not constructed to handle the growing amount of wastewater created by the Twin Cities when combined with the frequent large storms. During a storm, the system takes in more sewage combined with stormwater then the facility can treat. The excess raw sewage combined with the stormwater bypasses the treatment facility through overflow pipes and is discharged into the river.

Lewiston and Auburn have come a long way toward reducing their sewage discharges into the Androscoggin River. Millions of local taxpayer dollars have been invested to address the problem of CSOs; Auburn has taken the approach of completely separating sewage from stormwater in a different piping system which allows it to permanently seal off overflow pipes that connect to the river.

Lewiston, on the other hand, is implementing a different approach; in some areas of the city because of infrastructure barriers or burdensome cost they have chosen to employ a system of holding tanks that will hold combined stormwater along with sewage during storms.  After the flush of the storm has passed, the detained water is sent to the treatment facility to be treated and released to the river.

This approach will remove cigarette butts, motor oil, trash, and other pollutants flushed from the city streets in the detained water. But, unfortunately, Lewiston will not be able to construct holding tanks big enough to handle large storms . The holding tank system requires that the city to preserve the CSOs connected to the river, so that excess sewage and stormwater can bypass the treatment system and flow downriver.

Although the Androscoggin River Alliance disagrees with this approach, because it permanently preserves overflow pipes that will discharge sewage and stormwater into our river, we are pleased that Lewiston has tentatively agreed to notify the public when an overflow occurs.

In a March meeting between the ARA and the city, the ARA expressed its concerns about people coming in contact with the Androscoggin, particularly if the efforts to reclassify the lower river from a class “C” to a class “B” waterway are successful.

Sooner or later, this reclassification will happen.

Now that we have begun to reclaim our rivers, and people are again thinking about having a relationship with their rivers, isn’t it important to inform them about what is being discharged? Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins should support knowing how safe the water is.

They should support the Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act.

Neil A. Ward, of Leeds, is program director for the Androscoggin River Alliance. E-mail:[email protected]


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