May 4, 2009

Lautenberg, Menendez, Whitehouse Introduce Bill to Alert Communities of Sewage Overflows

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) today introduced legislation to protect communities from illness by requiring monitoring, notification and reporting of sewer overflows.

“The public has a right to know about potentially harmful pollution in their water. My bill will require sewer systems to be monitored regularly for sewage overflows and ensure that our neighborhoods are alerted quickly if public health is at risk,” said Sen. Lautenberg. “Notifying the public of sewer overflows will protect communities and build support for needed investment in our infrastructure to address contaminated stormwater and sewer overflows.”

Sen. Menendez said: “When families get home from a long day at work or in school, the last thing on their mind is whether or not their tap water is safe to use. New Jerseyans should be able to use their water knowing that they will get ample warning if there is any potential problem. By ensuring that we are monitoring for dangerous sewage overflows and properly getting information out about potential hazards, we can protect public health and give our families peace of mind.”

“There’s no reason for the American people to be in the dark when it comes to the quality of the water they and their families rely on,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “Senator Lautenberg’s bill is a common-sense solution to a serious – but solvable – problem.”

The legislation — the Sewage Overflow Right-To-Know Act of 2009 — would reduce the annual number of human illnesses from contact with untreated sewage by informing communities of sewer overflows discharging waste into their local waterways within 24 hours.

The measure would provide notification of sewer overflows by requiring sewage treatment operators to:

  • Monitor their systems for sewage overflows by using a management program or technology that will alert them of sewer overflows in a timely manner;
  • Notify the public, public health officials and other affected downstream entities, including drinking water suppliers, of any sewer overflows that endanger human health;
  • Report to the state or Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) all sewer overflows as soon as possible and follow-up with a written report explaining the duration and volume of the overflow and steps taken to mitigate the overflow; and
  • Make monitoring and notification eligible for funding via the Clean Water State Revolving Fund.

Every year, millions of Americans become sick from waterborne illnesses after coming into contact with water contaminated by sewer overflows. Sewer overflows occur regularly — tens of thousands of sewer overflows every year release billions of gallons of sewage into our waters. Aging wastewater infrastructure and sprawl contribute to wastewater systems becoming overwhelmed, leading to sewer overflows.

According to the EPA, between 1.8 and 3.5 million Americans become ill every year from recreational contact with waters contaminated by sanitary sewer overflows. Vulnerable populations, including the elderly and children, are particularly susceptible.

The bacteria, viruses and parasites found in untreated sewage can cause severe short-term symptoms including gastrointestinal problems, infections and fever, as well as serious chronic conditions such as heart, liver or kidney failure, arthritis and cancer.

Currently, there is no consistent monitoring, reporting and public notification requirement for sewer overflows.

Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921