Click here for:
The 4.6 billion gallons of untreated sewage dumped into Lake Michigan last month by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is "extremely serious," and demands a vigorous and probably costly effort to solve the problem, said Thomas Skinner, the EPA administrator for six Midwestern states, including Wisconsin.
"Whether this was a once-in-five-year event or a once-in-95-year event, dumping that kind of volume into the lake is not acceptable," Skinner said in an interview. He promised that the EPA's technical staff will help devise solutions, which he predicted will be "complex, expensive and time-consuming."
Though most communities have some overflows of untreated sewage, Milwaukee's dumping volume this spring far exceeds that of any other Lake Michigan community and is one of the worst of the Great Lakes region, Skinner said.
"Almost every city on the Great Lakes has problems, but Milwaukee's are of a level that are significantly greater than many other cities," Skinner said.
The EPA could not provide comparative dumping data Tuesday, but it issued a statement saying discharges that impair water quality will be high priorities for the agency, regardless of their origin.
Chicago, which has more than 100 miles of underground sewage storage tunnels, has rarely dumped untreated sewage into Lake Michigan in recent years, Skinner said. But other Great Lakes cities with major dumping problems include Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto.
The EPA has initiated lawsuits to force sewer fixes in a variety of cities around the country, but such litigation often takes years to resolve.
Four years ago, Detroit settled a 23-year-old sewage dumping lawsuit by agreeing to a $1 billion sewer improvement program, including construction of a 71/2-mile underground sewage storage tunnel. But that job hasn't been done yet, and Detroit-area sewer utilities - much like MMSD - dumped about 5 billion gallons of raw sewage after heavy rains last month, the Detroit News reported Tuesday.
Atlanta is planning a $1.95 billion sewer fix that includes building 20 miles of underground storage tunnels similar to Milwaukee's and separating some of its sewers in the wake of lawsuits by the EPA and an environmental group. Atlanta also paid $23 million in fines.
In 2002, the EPA and Ohio reached a partial agreement requiring about $450 million in work to eliminate Cincinnati's worst separate-sewer overflows, according to EPA accounts.
Other EPA actions in recent years have prodded expensive sewer upgrades for New Orleans; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Toledo and Youngstown in Ohio.
Most of the 4.6 billion gallons of untreated sewage that MMSD dumped last month came from sewers that combine storm water and sanitary waste. Both federal and state law allow some of that type of dumping, but only if it doesn't hurt water quality.
About 500 million gallons of MMSD's May dumping total came from separate sanitary sewer lines for most of the Milwaukee metropolitan area served by MMSD. That type of dumping is illegal, and the state Department of Natural Resources last week formally notified MMSD that those overflows violated its state operating permit.
DNR officials have said the matter probably will be turned over to the state Justice Department with a recommendation that MMSD be sued. Fines or forced fixes could be imposed as a result of such a suit.
Plan must come soon
Skinner said a plan to address deficiencies of the MMSD system must be crafted "relatively soon, if not immediately."
"There have been numerous game plans in the past, but the last 30 days or so demonstrate that we need to move the schedule up, really push the process here," said Skinner, who was appointed to his post in 2001. He formerly headed the Illinois EPA.
Skinner said that for a long time MMSD has relied on its deep-tunnel system as the sole solution to dumping problems. The tunnel, completed in late 1993, was the cornerstone of a $2.8 billion sewer upgrade program.
"It is now proving not to be the comprehensive solution to the problem," Skinner said. Adding capacity to the tunnel system may turn out to be only one of several potential solutions, he said.
MMSD Executive Director Kevin Shafer agreed that the dumping is unacceptable and said he welcomes any EPA help in crafting a solution. Shafer suggested a variety of possible fixes, including adding tunnel links, expanding treatment plant capacity, and cutting infiltration of rainwater into sewers.
"We are not happy with the volume of dumping as well," Shafer said. He called the tunnel the "first phase" of an ongoing program of local sewer improvements.
Skinner had no specifics on the possibility of federal funding for whatever the big fix turns out to be. He said that aside from the limited funding the EPA sends to Wisconsin, getting a special federal appropriation would probably be up to the Wisconsin congressional delegation.
MMSD moves to freeze pay
Meanwhile, MMSD announced Tuesday that its governing board has taken preliminary action to freeze the pay of 32 of 114 district employees after a salary study found that they were overpaid. The study, which cost about $50,000, compared MMSD employees with workers at 16 other sewer utilities in other states.
A committee of the MMSD commission endorsed the freeze this week, and the full commission is scheduled to act on it Monday.
Among those targeted for a pay freeze are: MMSD chief lawyer Michael McCabe, whose $135,698 estimated 2004 pay was found to be about $6,000 too high; district spokesman Bill Graffin, whose $81,535 was found excessive by $4,117; and planning and evaluation manager Mark Nicolini, whose $101,103 pay was listed as too much by $12,079.
Shafer said the salary freezes are an attempt "to control costs and taxes." His $133,753 salary was not red-lined.
"We need to make sure that salaries for MMSD employees are in line with the market and that future increases are based on performance," he said. A new performance-pay program would replace near-automatic annual "step" increases.
A consultant's report said that although raises are supposed to be based on merit, they have been awarded automatically to nearly all district employees.
In a related matter, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel protested the sewerage commission's decision to discuss the recent dumping of sewage behind closed doors this week, saying that its notice of the session violated the Open Meetings Law by failing to list a specific reason for the secrecy.
"In light of the intense public scrutiny of MMSD's current operations, I'm sure that you agree that strict compliance with the state's Open Records and Open Meetings laws is urgently necessary," wrote Paul Kritzer, attorney to the Journal Sentinel, in a letter of complaint to the district.