10/28/02 Portland Oregonian A01
2002 WL 3980374
EPA, CITIES AT ODDS OVER CRACKDOWN ON SEWERS
JIM BARNETT - The Oregonian
Summary: The move to stop sewer spills in urban areas
Portland comes as rules are easing in rural areas
The Bush administration is cracking down on sewage
Portland and other major cities, even as it plans to roll back other
clean-water regulations that primarily affect rural areas.
While Environmental Protection Agency officials insist
merely are following exacting rules drafted by the Clinton
administration, city leaders accuse the administration of playing
favorites and effectively penalizing people who live in traditional
"A cynical person could say that it looks political," said Rep.
Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., a former member of the Portland City
Council. "I don't know how a spokesman for the administration could
rationalize going after Portland and not against mining, to pick one
Portland is the latest to feel the regulatory heat. But EPA also
is closely watching performance of sewer systems in cities such as
Atlanta, Cleveland, Boston and New Orleans, at times threatening
John Peter Suarez, EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement,
said the agency isn't picking on Portland or anybody else. EPA often
monitors cities' progress, and when necessary, it steps in to order
a correction in course.
The problem arises with aging sewers that regularly spill their
contents into nearby rivers and streams after rainstorms. Although
cities from coast to coast have promised to clean up, in the
administration's view they need close supervision.
EPA last month told Portland leaders that a $1 billion, 20-year
plan to protect the Willamette and Columbia rivers could fall short
of federal Clean Water Act standards.
The spat over Portland's plan is a symptom of a vast problem
facing city councils across the country. Cities say the cost of
fixing the nation's leaky, spill-prone sewers could total nearly $1
trillion -- an amount equal to one-sixth of the national debt.
Many older cities are ill-prepared to face staggering repair
costs. Tax revenues have been squeezed by suburban flight, as well
as the recent recession, and Congress has failed to authorize new
In Baltimore, Mayor Martin O'Malley agreed earlier this year to
spend $900 million fixing city sewers to fend off EPA action. But he
was angered that the administration offered no financial help for
citizens of his struggling city.
"Basically, it's going to be put on ratepayers," said Gerry
Shields, a spokesman.
Portland Mayor Vera Katz and other city officials stirred up a
controversy this month by suggesting the EPA's review of the city's
sewer plan was motivated by complaints from rural Eastern Oregon,
where farmers and ranchers face wastewater restrictions.
Water-law experts and former Clinton administration officials
said Katz's interpretation of events was too simplistic. Even some
of Bush's harshest critics were reluctant to accuse the
administration of taking punitive action against cities.
But several said the Bush administration appears to have stumbled
blindly, perhaps naively, over an issue of fairness. By attempting
to ease clean-water rules affecting farms, mines and timber lots, it
might seem to punish other interests, including cities, that are
working to comply with existing law.
"It's a money thing, and it's a base thing," said Paul Schwartz,
water policy director for Clean Water Action. "I think that's
stronger than any retribution on the cities."
Eric Schaeffer, head of enforcement at EPA under Clinton, also
saw no retribution. The investigation of the Portland cleanup, as
well as those in many other big cities, began under the previous
administration's watch, he said. The Bush administration is
enforcing the law and should be applauded for doing so, even if the
rest of its environmental record is weak.
"I'd say the pushing started several years ago," said Schaeffer,
who quit earlier this year to protest the Bush's environmental
policies. "The idea this is some kind of political shenanigan is
EPA's only goal in reviewing Portland's plan, Suarez said, is to
make sure residents are getting what they pay for -- clean water.
Portland is one of more than 1,000 cities that built combined
sanitary and storm sewers early in the last century. The systems
usually work well until they are overwhelmed with rainwater. Then
they spew raw, bacteria-laden sewage into nearby waterways.
The problem is most acute in older, central cities, with an
estimated 15,000 overflows occurring each year. Many cities are
building massive underground pipes to divert storm water and prevent
inundation of sewer lines.
In cities comparable in size to Portland, the cost of compliance
is measured in billions of dollars. Cleveland and New Orleans also
are joining the billion-dollar sewer club.
But compared with highways, bridges and other readily visible
infrastructure, municipal sewers and waterworks receive little
federal support. Most cities have few alternatives except to raise
water and sewer rates to recoup their costs.
Higher rates tend to scare away new business, so low- and middle-
income residents bear the brunt, said Michael Sullivan, mayor of
Holyoke, Mass., the nation's first planned industrial city.
"The poor live in cities, and you're putting this on the backs of
the poor," said Sullivan, whose small city must spend $70 million to
repair 125-year-old sewers as it struggles with unemployment and
In Portland, a typical customer pays $64.13 a month for water and
sewer service -- the second-highest rate among 49 large cities
surveyed by the consulting firm Black & Veatch -- and rates are
expected to increase 8 percent a year for the foreseeable future.
Cities forced to tax
Some mayors view government-ordered sewer repairs as unfunded
mandates. Baltimore's O'Malley said his city's consent order with
EPA would have the same effect as a tax increase.
Suarez said the EPA recently issued a report detailing the
funding gap that cities face, and it plans a forum next year to
identify solutions. But critics note that a bill earmarking $20
billion for construction died this fall for lack of support.
"There was no interest on the part of the administration," said
Blumenauer, a member of the Water Resources and Environment
Meanwhile, mayors have raised a chorus of complaints about plans
to unravel other clean-water regulations that administration
officials regard as damaging to industry and the economy.
Of particular concern are regulations that require states to set
maximum pollution levels -- called total maximum daily loads, or
TMDLs -- for individual waterways and then develop plans to clean
The regulations allow states to reach beyond factories and sewer
systems to clean up "non-point" sources of pollution. Farmers, for
example, could be required to build berms around fields to contain
Shortly after his inauguration, Bush set aside a Clinton
administration rule expanding the maximum daily loads program. In
August, EPA proposed a new rule to dilute enforcement powers that
had been affirmed by the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
The administration also has proposed rollbacks of other
environmental laws including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered
Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, making its
enforcement of sewer regulations seems disingenuous, critics said.
The proposed changes to the maximum daily loads program are
particularly irksome because many cities have to clean water
polluted by unregulated farms upstream, said Judy Sheahan, assistant
director for government affairs at the National Conference of
But fairness is in the eye of the beholder.
Members of Congress representing rural areas, especially in the
West, believe that their constituents have paid the heaviest price
for compliance with environmental laws over the past two decades. If
cities have to pay up now, they said, so be it.
Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., has led an effort to showcase
what he thinks is unfair treatment of Western landowners. Many have
lost control of their land as a result of environmental regulations
that are virtually ignored in other parts of the country, he said.
To highlight the disparity, Radanovich distributed pictures of
toxic sludge regularly dumped into the Potomac River from a drinking-
water plant serving Washington. The dumping violates the Clean Water
Act and threatens the short-nosed sturgeon, an endangered fish, but
has continued unabated, he said.
"If the law were as strictly enforced in urban parts of the
country as it is in the rural parts, then people in the urban areas
would not tolerate it, and that would change the dynamic in
Congress," Radanovich said.
Radanovich regards the water crisis in Oregon's Klamath Basin as
a reverse example of uneven enforcement, said Brian Kennedy, a
spokesman. Water was withheld from farmers in 2001 in order to
protect suckers, which also are endangered.
"This is hypocrisy," Kennedy said.