Aging, decaying sewer infrastructure can cause wastewater to escape system pipes allowing untreated water to flow into streams.
In Bucks County Pennsylvania, an overwhelmed system will cost the operators, and likely the users who depend on the system, a sizable fine.
The Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority owns and operates hundreds of miles of sewer pipes, treatment plants, and wastewater collection systems, mostly in Bucks County. The authority’s service areas have suffered from many sewer overflows, including more than 100 since 2014 in Plumstead Township alone. During that time, multiple overflows, some flowing into the Delaware River, have also occurred in Bensalem, Richland, Doylestown Borough, Middletown, Upper Dublin, and New Hope-Solebury.
With sewage seen overflowing from manholes on numerous occasions, and operation and maintenance violations recorded under its state-issued permits, the authority was accused of violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The EPA and DEP filed a civil lawsuit against the authority, and at the same time, proposed a consent decree that would resolve the lawsuit subject to the approval of the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania.
The authority has agreed to pay a $450,000 penalty and is obligated to evaluate and upgrade its sewer systems as part of the decree, according to a statement Wednesday from U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams.
Sanitary sewer overflows happen with unauthorized discharges of pollutants into waterways. This often happens during severe weather, from improper system design, equipment failures, poor management, improper operation or maintenance, or vandalism.
Properly working sanitary sewer systems are meant to collect and transport sewage to a water treatment facility.
Sewer overflows cause a risk to public health and the environment with the main pollutants in raw sewage being bacteria, pathogens, untreated industrial wastes, toxic substances such as oil and pesticides, and wastewater solids, the statement said.
The authority has agreed to evaluate its collection system and adopt measures to ensure compliance with the federal and state requirements. That includes monitoring water flow; modeling the collection system; conducting inflow and infiltration evaluations; identifying and remedying hydraulic capacity limitations; addressing illegal sewer connections; and improving its overall operation and maintenance program.
“It’s no secret that many communities in the United States are grappling with issues caused by aging infrastructure, especially here on the East Coast which employs some of the oldest systems,” Williams said. “However, there are ways to manage and address these issues in order to maintain the safety of our environment and property. This consent decree will greatly reduce the problem of sewage in streets, basements, and waterways in Bucks County and beyond.”
The authority cooperated with the investigation. As part of the settlement, it did not admit liability for the alleged violations. The authority did not respond to a request for comment.