WASHINGTON – Maryland’s system of notifying the public of raw sewage overflows could be an example for the nation, officials said Tuesday to a congressional committee considering just such a measure nationally.
The Raw Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act, introduced in May, would require publicly owned sewage treatment facilities to notify residents and public health authorities within 24 hours of an overflow, among other reporting requirements.
While there is currently no federal law requiring notification, Maryland already has such measures in place.
The state began requiring overflow reporting in October 2000. Since 2001, the MDE has received 11,120 spill reports, averaging 384 million gallons a year, said Robert Summers, deputy secretary for the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“Overflows are a big public health and environmental concern,” said Summers in testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “We are particularly concerned with the Chesapeake Bay.”
In many places, raw sewage is dumped directly into nearby waterways when the system is stressed by heavy rainfall, or when pipes and equipment break. In Maryland, sewage overflows have led to fish kills, beach closures and drinking water contamination, Summers said.
The Environmental Protection Agency said that up to 3.5 million Americans become sick each year from swimming in contaminated waters, and that many sewer systems do not reliably monitor and report sewer overflows.
While the bill does not provide funding for improvement of sewer systems, Summers said that notification is key in building public support for sewer rate increases that can lead to important upgrades.
“The educational value of this reporting has been acknowledged across the board,” Summers testified.
A report by the advocacy organization American Rivers lauded Maryland for its strong public notification requirements. Anne Arundel County was held up as an example for its web site, e-mail notifications and phone hotlines relating to sewage overflows.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which handles water and sewer systems in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, also updates a web site in the event of a large spill and is developing an e-mail notification system to alert the public to all overflows, said spokesman Mike McGill.
“We have a fundamental right to know when sewage spills into the streams and rivers where we and our families swim, play and paddle,” said Katherine Baer of American Rivers in a prepared statement submitted at the hearing.
“This is a simple and commonsense concept that not only keeps people safe, but also builds much needed public support for the continued investment needed to maintain well-functioning sewers,” Baer said.