You may have seen a new sign out on your local waterfront lately. Thanks in part to our litigation with Hackensack Riverkeeper against the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), each combined sewer outfall in New Jersey now has to be labeled with a sign that faces both the land and the water.
These signs are important because they warn people of the health risks associated with coming into contact with the water after it rains. Impacts from combined sewers include human exposure to bacteria, pathogens and other household toxic waste, lots of plastic debris in our local waterways, and excess nutrients which can ultimately reduce the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water available for aquatic life.
Combined sewers are often found in our older communities and are designed to carry both sanitary sewage and stormwater runoff in a single pipe to the wastewater treatment facility. Unfortunately, when it rains, even as little as 0.2 inches, the stormwater runoff coming into the pipe can overwhelm the system and result in a bypass of the treatment plant. This means, everything in the pipe, including what you flush down your toilet, what drains down your sinks, and all that plastic and debris from the roadways, is dumped into local waterways untreated.
We often get asked – is that even legal? Under current discharge permits it is, but, under new requirements of the permits municipalities and wastewater treatment plants must develop a Long Term Control Plan. This Plan, due to NJDEP in four years, requires a system wide evaluation of the sewage infrastructure and an analysis of options that will reduce or eliminate the combined sewer discharges. The dischargers are required to conduct public outreach during the development of the Plan, so you will have a chance to make your voice heard.
Eliminating combined sewer discharges will take several years and substantial funding, but the long-term benefits to public health, environment and community quality of life are well worth the investment.