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Clean water advocates file federal complaint over sewage overflows from Harrisburg into Susquehanna River

The groups are seeking to intervene in a federal and state lawsuit against Harrisburg that they claim has "failed to produce any real progress" in halting overflows

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A clean water advocacy group announced Thursday that they've filed a complaint in federal court demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania end Harrisburg's routine piping of raw sewage and stormwater into the Susquehanna River, the biggest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, represented by the Environmental Integrity Project, filed the legal action in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. 

They are seeking to intervene in a six-year-old federal and state sewage lawsuit against Harrisburg that they claim has "failed to produce any real progress" in halting overflows that average about 800 million gallons a year.

"Harrisburg’s sewage problem is an environmental justice issue," said Ted Evgeniadis of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association in a press release announcing the filing. "The toxic discharges not only impact places downriver, they threaten the health of those living in our own state capitol.

“It’s outrageous that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection won’t even stop the sewage being piped from its own headquarters directly into the river. The city’s residents have the right to safety recreate and enjoy the resources of the river in their own backyards.”

For more than a century, Evgeniadis said, Harrisburg has had a combined sewage and stormwater system that is designed to overflow into the river from 59 outfalls whenever it rains. The Environmental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection sued Harrisburg Capital Region Water over water pollution violations from the antiquated system in  2015.

That lawsuit – still pending in court – was supposed to produce a final consent decree that would halt the sewage violations, Evgeniadis  said. 

But more than six years later, the Governor’s Mansion and State Office Complex, among other buildings in the Harrisburg area, are still piping raw sewage into the river about once a week under a weak and temporary “partial consent decree” that sets no deadline for closing the sewage outfalls or fixing the problem, Evgeniadis said.

“The vast majority of people living in Harrisburg are people of color and more than a quarter of residents are living below the poverty line," said Mary Greene, deputy director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "The ongoing sewage releases are an environmental justice problem that must be addressed so that the people of Harrisburg can safely use their own waterfront to fish and swim.

"We are seeking to intervene because it’s past time that EPA and the state impose a final consent decree that restores compliance with the Clean Water Act.”

Harrisburg Capital Region Water reported releasing 902 million gallons of sewage mixed with stormwater into the Susquehanna River in 2019, 1.4 billion gallons in 2018, 899 million gallons in 2017, and 789 million gallons in 2016, with no signs of improvement since the 2015 lawsuit and partial consent decree, the advocacy groups said.

The agreement that DEP and EPA reached with Harrisburg in 2015 was unlike consent decrees approved for many other older cities with combined sewage and stormwater systems in that Harrisburg’s did not require the construction of any storage tanks to temporarily hold overflows during storms, the closure of any sewage outfalls, or any other systemic changes.

Bacteria monitoring along the Harrisburg waterfront performed by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper in June and July of 2020 found E coli bacteria concentrations that averaged 2.5 times higher than safe levels for swimming or water contact recreation, Evgeniadis said. Bacteria levels downstream of Harrisburg averaged nearly three times higher than they were upstream of the city’s sewage and stormwater outfalls.

Harrisburg Capital Region Water released a plan in 2018 that proposes to spend $315 million over 20 years to slightly reduce, but not stop, the sewage overflows, Evgeniadis said.

However, about two thirds of this money ($214 million) is meant to simply catch up with long-neglected maintenance of the sewer system – which EPA has publicly stated is not an effective method of halting combined sewage overflows.

“If we’re going to invest a substantial amount of money to fix this issue, we need to make sure those plans are actually going to work and improve water quality around Harrisburg and downstream,” said Evgeniadis. “It’s also obvious that the state government has a moral obligation to stop the pollution from its own buildings and its own state capital. It’s not fair to make the people of Harrisburg pay for all of this.”

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