Monitoring Along Harrisburg’s Waterfront This Summer Found Bacteria Averaging Nearly 3X Safe Levels
Harrisburg, Pa. – Sewage overflows from Pennsylvania’s capital have only increased since a 2015 consent decree meant to address the problem, with the amount of human waste mixed with stormwater released to the Susquehanna River growing from 789 million gallons in 2016 to nearly 1.4 billion in 2018, water authority records show.
These chronic discharges of sewage from Harrisburg’s antiquated, combined sewer and stormwater system are having an impact on local water quality, with monitoring along the city’s waterfront in the summer of 2019 finding levels of E. coli bacteria averaging nearly three times levels safe for swimming or water-contact recreation, according to a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).
Of the 60 water samples collected by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper for EIP from June 15 to July 31, 2019, almost half (29) violated state health standards. Lab testing showed that seven of the samples had E coli at more than 10 times safe levels, including on City Island Park beach, and along the riverwalk just downstream from outfalls leading from the Governor’s Residence and the Capitol Office Complex.
“Pennsylvania’s governor and lawmakers should step up and take responsibility to pay for a solution to this public health problem in the state capital,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “Infrastructure improvements and the construction of underground wastewater storage tunnels can drastically reduce these illicit discharges. Citizens of Pennsylvania, especially those who reside in Harrisburg, should be able to swim and recreate around our state capital without the assumed risk of becoming ill from high levels of bacteria. The state must act as a financial partner to develop and implement real solutions because the levels of bacteria coming from the City of Harrisburg are unacceptable and embarrassing.”
Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project and former Director of Civil Enforcement at EPA, said: “The Susquehanna River is the biggest source of water in the Chesapeake Bay, and Pennsylvania is by far the Bay’s biggest polluter. Eliminating these sewage-laden overflows would make the Harrisburg waterfront safer for swimming and also reduce the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that promote algae growth and low oxygen levels in the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Bay.”
Among the findings of EIP’s report, “Sewage Overflows in Pennsylvania’s Capital,” are the following:
- The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and EPA have taken a lax approach to the sewage problem in Harrisburg, failing to penalize about 80 percent (105 of 131) of the self-reported sewage discharge violations by Capital Region Water from 2015 through 2018, according to DEP records.
- DEP and EPA in 2015 entered into a consent decree with Capital Region Water to address the sewage issue, but the agreement was weak and ineffective. The decree failed to include any penalties for past violations or any requirements that the local water authority close any sewage outfalls, stop the flow of sewage into the river, or test for bacteria.
- One outfall immediately downstream from the Governor’s Residence, located on the banks of the Susquehanna River, overflowed into the waterway 64 times last year – more than once a week – releasing more than 9 million gallons of sewage and stormwater. Downstream is City Island Park beach, which is closed because of high bacteria levels.
- While 2018’s high volume of discharges were driven by near-record precipitation, the number of dry weather sewage overflow events in Harrisburg also increased last year, from seven in 2017 to 28 in 2018.
The recent increases in releases of sewage mixed with stormwater from Harrisburg were likely driven by climate change, which is causing more intense rainfall, according to EIP’s report. But among the flaws of Capital Region’s Water’s proposed long-term plan to deal with its outdated and leaky combined sewage and stormwater system is that it doesn’t take increasing rainfall from climate change into account.
EIP’s analysis of Capital Region Water’s 2015 consent decree with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and EPA also found that the agreement is weaker than those in comparable old cities, not setting any deadlines for Harrisburg to stop dumping sewage into the river or requiring the closure of any outfalls.
Capital Region Water is proposing to charge Harrisburg area ratepayers $315 million over 20 years to improve the maintenance of the existing combined sewage and stormwater system and make some minor enhancements to it, such as upgrading a sewage pumping station. The water authority is also proposing to plant trees, build rain gardens and create other “green infrastructure” projects in an attempt to absorb stormwater.
The water authority projects that these efforts may reduce the amount of raw sewage mixed with stormwater pouring into the river by perhaps 60 percent, but not stop it. Neither Capital Region Water’s written plan – nor the 2015 consent decree – require any bacteria testing along the city waterfront. Such testing would confirm that the money being invested actually improves water quality and allows the public to once again swim at the city beach or safely kayak along the waterfront.
The Harrisburg plan also does not require the fixing of the underlying plumbing problem in Harrisburg, which is that human waste from the Governor’s Mansion, State Office Complex and other buildings is piped directly into the Susquehanna River whenever rain overwhelms the out-of-date sewer system. Those overflows into the Susquehanna happened on more than 100 days in 2018.
In other old cities with antiquated combined sewage and stormwater systems, such as Scranton, Williamsport, Alexandria, Virginia, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., authorities build underground storage tunnels or tanks to temporarily hold excess stormwater mixed with sewage during rainstorms until it can be properly treated. Such tunnels not planned in Harrisburg.
The Environmental Integrity Project’s report recommends the following solutions:
- 1) Because Harrisburg is the state capital and almost half of the land in the city is owned by state agencies – which pay no taxes – Pennsylvania should commit to paying most of the cost of improving Harrisburg’s infrastructure and stopping the flow of sewage into the Susquehanna River.
- 2) EPA and the DEP should require the Harrisburg Capital Region Water authority to show how its long term plan will demonstrably reduce fecal bacteria levels in the Susquehanna River and allow the public to again use the waterfront for swimming, boating, and fishing.
- 3) State and federal regulators should mandate regular testing for bacteria along Harrisburg’s riverfront and at City Island Park beach to determine whether the investments being initiated by Capital Region Water actually reduce the flow of sewage into the river. Without verification, it will be impossible to know whether additional steps are needed
- 4) If Harrisburg’s plan cannot reduce bacteria levels, EPA and DEP should require Capital Region Water to do more to fix the underlying plumbing problem, such as by building underground storage tunnels to temporarily hold waste during storms before treatment.
- 5) The state and federal agencies should enforce a requirement that Capital Region Water notify the media and general public whenever a combined sewage overflow occurs. Such notifications to the news media are not happening today, according to CRW. This is despite a requirement for public notification in the 2015 consent decree. Public awareness of the problem will help local residents protect their health and understand the need for investments.
- 6) EPA and the state should encourage stormwater control systems such as rain gardens, tree plantings, and green roofs. However, this green infrastructure should be combined with sewage system upgrades to end the outdated piping of raw human waste into the Susquehanna River.
- 7) DEP and EPA should officially designate the Susquehanna River around Harrisburg as impaired for fecal bacteria under the federal Clean Water Act, which would force Pennsylvania to develop and follow a cleanup plan (a “Total Maximum Daily Load”) to solve the sewage overflow problem.
- 8) Harrisburg and the other cities in Pennsylvania with combined sewage and stormwater systems should factor into their planning the increased amount of rainfall already deluging the region because of climate change. Failing to calibrate planning for the growing intensity of rainfall may mean that any designs will be overwhelmed.
“Harrisburg boasts a beautiful waterfront, riverwalk, and public park with a beach,” said Schaeffer of EIP. “Local people who can’t afford summer vacations elsewhere should be able to safely use these public amenities for water-contact recreation.”
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas, that protects public health and the environment by investigating polluters, holding them accountable under the law, and strengthening public policy.
Media contacts: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or firstname.lastname@example.org