Danger in the water, but little is done

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Upstate Delaware’s poor handling of waste

‘has to be addressed’

By JEFF MONTGOMERY and MOLLY MURRAY

November 8, 2004--On almost any hot summer day, children play in the streams and rivers that slice through northern Delaware.  Often they're in danger, ignoring signs posted by state officials to warn about health risks associated with sewage in the water.

Along the Christina Riverwalk, Wilmington resident Phyllis Beer scanned the murky brown water near the Amtrak station, then glanced at Christina Landing, a town house development under construction across the river.

"I don't know if I would buy one of them," Beer, 40, said about the billion-dollar city and state effort to put new homes, businesses and cultural centers along Wilmington's waterfront. "Sometimes the water can be disgusting, if you look close."

Similar concerns have been expressed about streams and wells across Delaware, despite decades of work to reduce pollution from industries, sewage plants and runoff. The issues vary from north to south.

In northern Delaware, the biggest problems involve untreated sewage that runs into the Brandywine in Wilmington when it rains, along with pollution from cesspools and deteriorating septic systems.

Even treated waste carries bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus that can contaminate drinking water and serve as fertilizer in streams and bays. The nutrients contribute to blooms of algae and microbes that deplete oxygen levels as they grow and decay, choking fish and other aquatic life. Concern also is mounting over caffeine, antibiotics, hormones and other compounds in human waste that potentially threaten drinking-water supplies and the wider environment.

In Sussex County, levels of nitrogen from failing septic systems and farms have increased in groundwater over the past decade, in some cases reaching levels that jeopardize the health of pregnant women and infants.

While government officials point to progress in reducing factory discharges of wastewater, Wilmington and the rest of the state continue to be threatened by human waste - pollutants from sewage-treatment plants and septic systems. The discharges foul the state's waters in ways as subtle as changes in plant and microbe populations and as overt as a human stool drifting down a river.

At risk are water supplies and local fisheries, hundreds of millions in tax dollars and billions in development opportunities across Delaware. Some groups argue that water quality and the environment have taken a back seat to growth and cost-cutting measures that often benefit developers and county and local governments.

"I've been appalled at the state's unwillingness to face reality here," said Al Denio, antipollution committee chairman for the Delaware Chapter of the Sierra Club. "They say we're working on a plan for Wilmington, but it's going to take 10 or 20 years to fix. Then I read about homes that don't have working sewer or septic systems. We have to think seriously about how long we can play this game and keep putting houses on land that can't absorb this stuff."

A federal lawsuit settlement in 1997 requires Delaware to set pollution limits for all waterways that fail to meet national water-quality standards. The Sierra Club and American Littoral Society, two groups that won the court order, have said they may again seek court intervention if Delaware fails to comply by the 2007 deadline.

Enormous costs

The state needs about $200 million in improvements, officials have said. The state Wastewater Facilities Advisory Council recently reported plans to update that estimate, potentially sending the bill higher at a time when federal subsidies for clean-water programs are dwindling.

State regulators are struggling to get the resources and authority needed to protect the environment from failing septic systems, holding tanks and cesspools. The state's four septic-system inspectors cannot keep up with recommended schedules for inspections and pumpouts.

Across Delaware, state scientists rate only 1 percent of rivers and streams and just 13 percent of ponds and lakes as fully safe for swimming. Bacteria and other pollutants, many originating in wastewater, cause the most problems.  Sewage-treatment plants and septic systems contribute to the problem, sometimes in glaring ways.

In northern Delaware, state officials are frustrated by their inability to convince residents to eliminate or even inventory cesspools, which are old-fashioned underground lined pits from which untreated waste trickles into the soil. They have been called "underground outhouses" by state officials.

Earlier this year, regulators resorted to using DNA testing to prove to residents that water near their neighborhood was being polluted by human waste.

"We've got maybe two decades invested in trying to correct a problem that's the result of 100 years' worth of human activities and behavior," said Kevin C. Donnelly, water-resources director for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Bacteria from human waste is often an unseen danger, percolating underground and tainting streams, rivers and bays.

No one knows better than Rick Greene, the state environmental scientist who has spent years studying fish in Delaware for signs of toxic contamination.

Eight years ago, Greene was taking sediment samples in the tidal section of White Clay Creek near Stanton. He paused to pick up some stones, looking for fly larvae. A diverse array of insect larvae indicates good water quality.

"I didn't have my gloves on, and I had a little tiny cut on my elbow," he said.  Greene reached up and scratched his arm. "Within eight hours, my arm was as big as my leg," Greene recalled.  At the hospital, an infectious-disease specialist was called in.

"I've got good news and I've got bad news," Greene recalled the doctor saying. "You're going to keep your arm. The bad news is you're going to be in here for a week."

Greene believes the infection came from bacteria in the water.

"It's not chlorinated pool water. There are risks," he said. "If you have any open cuts, do not go in the surface water."

A stressed system

That surface water includes the Brandywine and the Christina River, where untreated sewage spills during rainstorms.

Wilmington's regional sewage-treatment plant is authorized to discharge up to an average of 135 million gallons of treated waste daily. A consultant estimated that the city's sewer system was allowing about 700 million gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the rivers each year.

The overflows occur because city stormwater drains and sewers share pipes. During heavy rain, stormwater overwhelms the pipes. Designers installed overflow points to relieve the system, protect the sewage-treatment plant and prevent backups into households.

Critics say the spills make the Brandywine unfit for swimming and have jeopardized generations of residents who frolicked in the water anyway. Despite the threat, however, Wilmington officials have resisted some proposals for upgrades to the sewage-treatment system, which serves not only Wilmington, but most of northern New Castle County.

Wilmington officials say the Brandywine already is polluted when it reaches the city because of sewer plants and septic systems upstream and runoff from farms, towns and suburbs. City leaders also point out that federal rules require Wilmington to capture only 85 percent of likely overflows during a heavy rainstorm. The remaining 15 percent could continue to wash into streams legally.

Kash Srinivasan, public works director for Wilmington, said the overflows are highly diluted by stormwater, with about 70 percent of the waste and sewage coming from suburban areas and other cities and towns outside Wilmington.

"A combined sewer overflow is basically a stormwater overflow," Srinivasan said. "If you think about shutting off all the [combined sewer overflows] in a suburban context, it's like saying 'Plug all the storm drains.' "

There are as many if not more pollutants coming out of stormwater drains in other parts of the state as there are coming out of combined sewer overflows, he said.

'It has to be addressed'

Traditional stormwater-only drains rarely carry raw sewage, however.

Members of a legislative task force that studied the problem in the 1990s were unswayed by Wilmington's dilution defense and recommended signs warning against swimming in city waterways. The signs were placed but often go unheeded.

The combined sewer-overflow problem "has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed head-on," said Susan Regis Collins, a member of the Wilmington River-City Committee, a nonprofit community group that follows environmental issues. "There's no easy solution. They've spent years trying to wiggle out of it, and now they should face up to it."

Recently, the city proposed spending $27 million to upgrade its system. It also suggested that Delaware downgrade its water-quality standards, saying a total sewer fix in Wilmington would cost hundreds of millions, without solving any other wastewater problems in the state.

Hundreds of communities in other states have similar overflow problems, city officials point out. Greeley and Hansen, an environmental consultant hired by Wilmington, also is advising a countywide authority in Pittsburgh. It has 10 times as many overflow points as the Christina and Brandywine. Costs for fixing the problem in Allegheny County could top $1.7 billion, experts said.

This summer, Greeley and Hansen firm outlined plans for an EPA-backed study in northern Delaware that would serve as a pilot project for the rest of the country. The analysis would determine the prospects and potential cost of eliminating enough pollution to guarantee swimmer safety in the Brandywine and other waters that drain into the Christina River.

Officials said the study is aimed at determining how clean the water should be and how much people are willing to pay to reach that goal.

Alan Muller, who directs the environmental group Green Delaware, said the city's stance amounts to a campaign to jettison the goal of making the water safe for swimming.

Muller, Regis Collins, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups say they oppose any attempt to declare local waters permanently unsafe for swimming, even if the warnings are in effect only when rain causes sewage overflows.

Muller, once arrested for spray-painting a warning on a city overflow pipe, said the city uses sewer funds for other expenses.

"It doesn't make any sense for the city to say we can't do anything about the sewers because it costs too much to fix," Muller said."We're not maintaining our sewers, we're not operating them properly, and we're not upgrading them."

 

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