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CCE IN THE NEWS

Source: CT Post

Public has a right to know about contamination

Posted: March 11, 2012
Originally Published: March 9, 2012

We may live in the new millennium, but our state's sewer systems were designed for the 19th century. Much of our sewage infrastructure is aging and failing. Storms, heavy snowfalls or simply dilapidated pipes can result in raw or partially treated sewage being released in our environment before it reaches a treatment plant. In 2011, Connecticut broke records for rain and snowfall, which in turn resulted in over 1 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage being discharged into local waterways and Long Island Sound. Yet the public was ill-informed of these releases.

Sewage overflows contaminate waterways and our communities with dangerous pathogens that put our health at risk. E. coli and salmonella are common types of bacteria associated with exposure to raw sewage, along with parasites, and even viruses such as hepatitis. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1.8 million and 3.5 million Americans become ill annually from contact with recreational waters contaminated by sewage.

Bacteria from untreated sewage contaminates our fisheries, making shellfish unsafe to eat. Worst of all, there are currently no state or federal policies in place requiring notification to residents when dangerous sewage overflows occur.

People can often be seen swimming, fishing or boating in waters that have recently been contaminated with sewage. In this case, ignorance isn't bliss, ignorance is dangerous.

Last Oct. 31, a wastewater treatment facility in Stamford suffered an equipment malfunction that caused a massive sewage overflow, spilling more than 42 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage directly into Stamford Harbor. The sewage contaminated the harbor so badly that shellfish beds in the area had to be shut down, and remained closed for three weeks. Despite the volume of untreated sewage contaminating this high traffic urban waterway, many members of the Stamford community did not know about the massive spill for weeks.

Governor Malloy's two-storm panel released a report in early January that identified more than 80 different measures Connecticut must take to avoid future crises in the wake of powerful storms like Irene. The report recognized that major storm systems are becoming more frequent and less predictable, and that action must be taken so that Connecticut is better prepared for extreme storms.

Unfortunately, it makes little mention of the state's failing wastewater infrastructure, and offers no suggestion about how to warn the public about the potential health risks associated with these dangerous sewage overflows.

Long Island Sound is the cornerstone of Connecticut's maritime economy. It generates more than $8 billion each year through tourism, boating, and commercial and recreational fishing, and holds great cultural significance for coastal communities. Families flock to the Sound's beaches by the millions every summer to enjoy the natural beauty. But frequent discharges of untreated sewage are having an impact on the quality of life in coastal Connecticut, and people deserve the right to know when it happens.

The state of Connecticut has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of its residents, and should enact common-sense legislation that requires prompt public notification every time sewage overflows occur. The public has a right to know this information, so families can take the necessary precautions to protect themselves from the health risks associated with exposure to harmful untreated sewage.

Louis W. Burch is program coordinator for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Hamden.