SAN ANTONIO, Texas, July 23, 2013 (ENS) – To address thousands of raw sewage discharges  in violation of the Clean Water Act, the San Antonio Water System has agreed to a $1.1 billion upgrade to its infrastructure and will pay a $2.6 million civil penalty.

The state of Texas is a co-plaintiff in this case and will receive half of the civil penalty, or $1.3 million.

When wastewater systems overflow, they release raw sewage and other pollutants into local waterways, threatening water quality and contributing to disease outbreaks. To come into compliance with the Clean Water Act, the San Antonio Water System, SAWS, is expected to spend $1.1 billion.

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Water pipes in San Antonio, Texas (Photo by Jason Jones)

The Justice Department, on behalf of EPA, filed a complaint against the San Antonio Water System, alleging that between 2006 and 2012, SAWS had some 2,200 illegal overflows from its sanitary sewer system that dumped 23 million gallons of raw sewage into local waterways.

System capacity problems result in the sewer system being overwhelmed by rainfall, causing it to discharge untreated sewage combined with stormwater into local waterways.

EPA confirmed these violations during a 2011 field inspection and record review.

Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of the waters of the United States is one of the EPA’s national top priorities. The agency’s initiative focuses on reducing sewer overflows, which threaten human health and the environment.

“EPA is working with cities across the country to protect the nation’s waters from raw sewage overflows that can threaten public health,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “The improvements and upgrades agreed to in this settlement will protect the people of San Antonio and the surrounding communities by reducing raw sewage in the water.”

“This settlement will help protect San Antonio residents from exposure to raw sewage by committing San Antonio to make immediate, badly needed repairs to its sewers as well as long-term improvements in the operation, management and maintenance of its system,” said Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“These improvements will benefit well over a million people living in Bexar County, with a special focus on reducing sewage overflows in communities who have suffered a historical pollution burden,” Dreher said.

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San Antonio manhole cover (Photo by Monceau)

The settlement will address these illegal discharges from SAWS’ publicly-owned treatment works, which includes three wastewater treatment plants and associated collection system. The SAWS system serves 1.3 million people in Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio.

In a statement announcing the settlement, SAWS says that “75 percent of the sewer spills in San Antonio are caused by grease and debris.” The utility is trying to educate its customers to place fatty meat trimmings and liquid grease in a plastic container and discard in a garbage can rather than down the drain.

SAWS  says that for years the utility has implemented an ongoing sewer spill reduction program that has resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the number of spills from their peak.

The work required to comply with the consent decree over a term of 10 to 12 years includes system-wide inspection, and cleaning and evaluation of sewer pipelines. Also required are the targeted replacement and rehabilitation of aging infrastructure.

The work is tailored to the 5,200 miles of pipe in the SAWS sewer system, avoiding unnecessary costs and focusing on the causes of sewer spills in San Antonio.

SAWS will also initiate a capacity management, operation and maintenance program to proactively reduce sanitary sewer overflows. In addition, SAWS will conduct water quality monitoring to identify potential additional sources of bacterial contamination that could be contributing to impairment of the Upper San Antonio River.

SAWS says the costs of the settlement are already built into its rate increase projections. “Despite the cost of the agreement, SAWS bills will remain among the lowest in Texas,” the utility says.

Under the consent decree, SAWS will invest an estimated $492 million more than what the utility would have spent over the next 10 years to reduce sewer spills and maintain its sewer system infrastructure – an estimated $49 million per year.

The plan outlined in the settlement must be fully implemented by calendar year 2025.

The settlement will be filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, San Antonio Division and is subject to a 30-day public comment period before final court approval of the consent decree. Once the consent decree has been approved, SAWS will have 60 days to pay the civil penalty to the United States and the state of Texas.

The proposed consent decree is online at: www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

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