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