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Sewage Dumping By PA’s Capital Into Maryland Sparks Inquiry By MD Governor

Tom Pelton

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has criticized Pennsylvania for being the state that contributes by far the most pollution to the Chesapeake Bay and the state that has done the least to meet its cleanup obligations.

But the problem in Pennsylvania is a political one, because many local voters don’t care about the Chesapeake Bay because they don’t live near it.

So I worked with my colleagues at the Environmental Integrity Project to investigate the question:  Well, how is Pennsylvania doing on enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect local waterways in its own back yard, in the state Capital?

We examined fiveyears of public records and found that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been taking a lax approach to sewage discharges in Harrisburg. The state agency has penalized only 20 percent of 131 self-reported illegal sewage discharges from the city’s water and sewer authority since 2015.

Harrisburg is one of 31 cities in Pennsylvania that have primitive, leaky combined sewer and stormwater systems that are designed to pipe raw human waste directly, untreated, into Chesapeake Bay’s biggest tributary whenever it rains or the system is overwhelmed. In Harrisburg last year, those releases happened on 150 days – or more than a third of the time, according to Harrisburg Capital Region Water.

Pennsylvania regulators signed a consent order with Harrisburg’s water and sewer authority in 2015 that was supposed to address the chronic sewage overflow problem. But the agreement did not set any deadline for the city to stop dumping sewage. And since then, sewage and stormwater overflows from Harrisburg have only increased, from about 800 million gallons in 2016 to 1.4 billion gallons in 2018, according to records of Capital Region Water.

The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, working with the Environmental Integrity Project and a certified lab company, conducted water quality sampling along the Harrisburg waterfront from June 15 through July 31 this summer and found E coli bacteria levels averaging almost triple safe levels for swimming or water contact recreation.

Twenty nine of the 60 samples exceeded the state's health standard for E coli, 235 CFU/100 mL water.  And in seven of the water samples analyzed, bacteria concentrations were more than 10 times safe levels.  These hotspots were immediately downstream from outfalls leading directly from the Pennsylvania Governor’s Residence and State Capitol building complex, and also on the city’s public beach on City Island Park.

Records show that, on average, once or twice a week last year, when people in the Governor’s Residence or Capitol Office Complex flushed their toilets, the waste was piped directly, without filtration, into the Susquehanna River.

Ted Evgeniadis is the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper.

“When you have the city of Harrisburg, on any given day, dumping raw sewage directly into the river on any given day, it really cuts back on the amount of effort that is going on right now to clean up the Bay,” said Evgeniadis.  “If the city of Harrisburg – the capital of Pennsylvania, is dumping untreated wastewater – raw sewage – which does contain high levels of nitrogen – right into the Susquehanna, as we all know, as the river flows, that stuff flows right downstream and into the Bay.”

EPA data show that sewage is not the largest source of pollution from Pennsylvania, with agricultural runoff and stormwater pollution larger contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus into the Chesapeake Bay.

However, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration was so disturbed by the EnvironmentalIntegrity Project’s report on Pennsylvania’s sewage dumping on its downstream neighbor that it demanded a meeting with Pennsylvania environmental regulators and EPA to get an explanation.

Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment, Ben Grumbles, said Maryland officials want EPA to crack down on Pennsylvania’s pollution to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.  Grumbes said the Hogan Administration is considering the possibility of legal action against Pennsylvania.

“Pennsylvania has a very big lift, and they need to make significantly more progress,” Grumbles said. “And one of the reasons why the governor wants us to get more of the facts out on this particular situation – as as on runoff from farms, or stormwater pollution coming from the Commonwealth – is to learn more and to think how can we all leverage more progress upstream in Pennsylvania.”

Controlling sewage is just one of many areas in which Pennsylvania is far behind other states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in controlling water pollution. For example, Pennsylvania has upgraded only four percent of its 189 medium to large sewage treatment plants in the Bay watershed to state-of-the art levels, according to EPA data.  In contrast, Maryland has modernized 94 percent of its 67 sewage plants with what experts call “enhanced nutrient removal” systems, and Virginia has upgraded 44 percent of its municipal plants.  

About a third of the farms with livestock in Pennsylvania still don’t have or follow fertilizer runoff pollution control plans, according to state reports. And Pennsylvania has more than three times the number of cities with primitive, combined sewer and stormwater systems than any other state in the bay region, according to EPA.

Officials at Capital Region Water, which runs Harrisburg’s sewer and stormwater system, said they are proposing a $315 million plan over 20 years to reduce by about half -- but not stop -- the sewage flows into the Susquehanna River by improving maintenance and making minor upgrades to their existing system. The agency argues that Harrisburg is too poor to afford to really fix the problem and end the piping of raw sewage into the river.

“One of the challenges that we face in the city of Harrisburg is that we have an extremely financially challenged rate base,” said David Stewart, Director of Engineering at Capital Region Water. “So as we went through the program, we realized that getting to the level of control that would be ideal is going to be financially prohibitive. So we looked at the best we could do.”

However, the state of Pennsylvania owns almost half of the land and many of the buildings in Harrisburg and has a $34 billion annual state budget.

Those budget numbers suggest that – if the governor and lawmakers in Pennsylvania are flushing their toilets directly into the river – they could also write a check to help clean up the river and the downstream Chesapeake Bay.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.