INSIDE WASHINGTON/Locals walk out on sewer talks
The communication lines between local government officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have broken down over proposed federal regulations that could impose punishing fines on cities and counties for sewer violations. The issue reached a boiling point in late July.
That is when representatives of the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), American Public Works Association and the Water Environment Federation walked out of a meeting with EPA officials after realizing their concerns were falling on deaf ears. The organizations are concerned that EPA’s proposed regulations would allow the agency to fine local governments for accidental sanitary sewer overflows.
Local government spokespeople said they were surprised that EPA would not bend on its insistence to punish cities and counties for accidental overflows – even if the communities historically have had effective water flow programs. “The walkout really centered on the fact that EPA still does not recognize the realities of running a sewer system,” says John Millet, a spokes-man for AMSA. Carol Kocheisen, an attorney with NLC, agrees, calling EPA’s proposals “unrealistic.”
Ironically, the walkout occurred just prior to the White House’s issuance of an executive order that directs federal agencies to calculate the costs to local governments of any new rules – before the rules are implemented. “The draft-proposed regulations are exactly the types of actions the recent federal executive order is intended to discourage,” says NACo spokesperson Shawn Bullard. “NACo continues to be greatly concerned about the potential preemption or micro-management of local prerogatives.”
The realities associated with operating a sewer system are not only logistically daunting but financially taxing. Local governments across the country will spend an estimated $80 billion to $90 billion over the next 20 years to keep their sewer systems in good order. According to local officials, the new regulations could double that cost.
AMSA estimates that the lifespan of a water pipe averages between 40 and 60 years. Preventive maintenance helps extend that life, but predicting when a pipe may falter is not an exact science, local officials say. “Collection systems experience blockages for reasons over which the operators have no control,” Kocheisen says.
For example, a pipe may crack during a frost, or it may corrode for other reasons – any of which can cause sewers to overflow. Federal fines for those overflows range from $1,000 to $27,000, Millet notes. At a time when the federal government is cutting aid to local governments, every dime is needed to help pay for piping upgrades and repairs. “Lack of funding sometimes cripples those efforts, especially in the smaller communities,” Millet says. “You have to really have an advanced program to stay ahead of the curve on this, and you have to have a lot of money backing you up.”
Sixty percent of the nation’s sewer systems serve communities of 5,000 people or less. Forty percent of those serve communities with 1,000 people or less. In smaller communities, it would be difficult for local governments to pass along the cost of federal fines to the ratepayers.
While the five local government groups have yet to meet with White House officials to work out the impasse, the groups are continuing to work together on developing reasonable regulations. Additionally, ongoing negotiations with members of Congress could result in legislation that would clarify the situation.