Notification rule issued for Great Lakes sewer overflows
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January 15, 2018
Notification rule issued for Great Lakes sewer overflows

Combined sewer systems (CSSs) and their offspring, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), are relics of 19th- and early 20th-century public engineering that continue to be a major impediment to improving the quality of surface waters. The Great Lakes Basin, which includes the major lakes and all the streams, rivers, and other lakes and tributaries connected to them, is surrounded by many towns and some major cities (e.g., Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit) that have yet to assemble the will and the very large sums of money needed to replace CSSs with separate sanitary sewer systems. As a result, highly polluted CSOs are still spreading into waters in the Great Lakes Basin used by people and placing them at risk. In Section 425 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, Congress attempted to address the problem by directing the EPA to develop rules to require communities to notify the public about CSOs in their areas. The Agency has now issued its final regulations implementing Section 425 (January 8, 2018, FR).

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1,482 events in 2014

CSSs collect both sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single-pipe system. Under normal, dry weather conditions, CSSs transport all wastewater to a sewage treatment plant. However, under wet weather conditions, when the volume of wastewater and stormwater exceeds the capacity of the CSS or treatment plant, these systems are designed to divert some of the combined flow, before reaching the treatment plant, to nearby streams, rivers, and other water bodies. Most of these discharges are authorized by Clean Water Act (CWA) National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits. The EPA says that 162 NPDES permits for CSO discharges have been issued to 158 Great Lakes communities. In 2016, the Agency estimated that in 2014, 7 Great Lakes states reported 1,482 events where untreated sewage was discharged from CSOs to the Great Lakes Basin and an additional 187 CSO events where partially treated sewage was discharged. According to the Agency, CSSs in the Great Lakes Basin service about 40 million people.

Timely notices

The intent of the new rule is to require that permittees provide three types of notifications to protect public health:

Timely notices (including signage) to alert the public about CSO discharges, thereby allowing the public to take steps, such as avoiding activities on the water, to reduce their potential exposure to pathogens associated with human sewage;

Timely notices to local public health departments, public drinking water facilities, and other potentially affected public entities to alert these entities about specific CSO discharges and support the development of appropriate responses to the discharges, such as beach and water-body closures and advisories; and

Providing the community and interested stakeholders with effective and meaningful follow-up notification that summarizes the permittee’s CSO discharges from the previous year and provides stakeholders with information on the permittee’s plans to control CSO discharges.

The permittee’s method of complying with the notification requirements must be included in public notification plans that include proposed monitoring locations. Permittees are required to seek and consider input on these plans from local public health departments and other potentially affected entities whose waters may be impacted by their CSO discharges. The rule requires that Great Lakes Basin CSO permittees submit the public notification plan to the NPDES permitting authority by August 7, 2018.

NPDES permits

The requirements will be implemented through two regulatory mechanisms:

First, the rule applies directly to existing Great Lakes Basin CSO permittees until their NPDES permits are next reissued after February 7, 2018, unless the permit has been proposed before February 7, 2018, in which case the requirements would be incorporated into the next permit renewal.

Second, the requirements will be implemented as a condition in NPDES permits when they are next reissued after February 7, 2018, unless the permit has been proposed before February 7, 2018, in which case the requirements would be incorporated into the next permit renewal.

Section 425 directs that the notification requirements must be implemented within 2 years of the final rule’s February 7, 2018, effective date. However, the section includes a provision that allows the NPDES permitting authority (generally, the state government) to extend the compliance dates for notification and/or submittal of the public notification plan for individual communities if the authority determines the community needs additional time to comply to avoid undue economic hardship.

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