The EPA says that the cost would be about $8 billion to upgrade sewer treatment plants and to deal with stormwater runoff.
At more than 200 spots like this in New Jersey, outdated sewer systems pour more than 23 billion gallons of raw sewage into the water each year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.Lisa Jackson, the current head of the EPA, used to be the head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Jon Corzine. As such, she was in a position to try and get municipalities funding to make the necessary improvements.
And residents — including those who boat, kayak and fish these waterways — are usually never told when the sewage is flowing, officials say.
It doesn’t take a hurricane for the sewers to surge. Even small rainfalls can cause a dirty cocktail of bacteria to spew from 224 nondescript pipes that are mostly in northern New Jersey, EPA says, posing a serious health risk to anyone who touches the water.
Frustrated by the state’s lack of progress, the federal agency is pressuring the Christie administration to fix the long-standing problem, which EPA estimates could cost more than $8 billion.
And environmentalists say they will soon take the state to court, arguing the permit it issues that allows municipalities to dump the sewage violates the federal Clean Water Act.
"New Jersey has the worst program in the country to deal with this problem," said Christopher Len, staff attorney for the nonprofit NY/NJ Baykeeper, which is challenging the permit with Sheehan and others. "It’s laughable."
The state Department of Environmental Protection has rejected NY/NJ Baykeeper’s claims and said it plans to unveil revised rules in six months that would require better public notification and other basic and less expensive improvements. The state says nine of the 224 spill points have been eliminated since EPA’s last count.
But the DEP said it will not yet require cities to implement long-term plans to fix the problem. Instead, it intends to hold another round of meetings and ask cities and towns to again study what changes they can afford.
Federal officials said in a recent letter to DEP that the state "has all the data it needs to tackle this long-term challenge."
Jeffrey Gratz, chief of EPA’s clean water regulatory branch overseeing New Jersey, said in an interview that unless the state’s next set of rules puts municipalities on a schedule to address the problem, EPA will have a "serious issue with it."
She failed at that job, and now the agency is pushing for what amounts to an unfunded mandate to try and get New Jersey to comply with federal and state clean water acts.
Thing is - the agency is right that something needs to be done here. Many municipalities in New Jersey have combined sewer systems - where runoff and sanitary sewage systems mingle and can overwhelm sewage treatment systems. A separated system would allow sewage to be properly treated and allow runoff to flow into waterways without the same impact.
New Jersey and other states have underfunded this kind of infrastructure for far too long and our waterways have suffered from a failure of foresight and forethought.