York City bans using soap to wash cars in driveways or on streets

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

York City residents can no longer wash cars with soap — at least in areas where the sudsy water runs directly into storm drains.

City Council passed a series of amended ordinances Aug. 16 that ban soaps and detergents from being discharged into its stormwater system — changes that were required by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"We all have to live together and live in our environment. As our effects on the environment emerge, we have to change," York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said. "Our livelihoods count on water."

Lettice Brown, the city's stormwater manager, said areas that have drains built to take runoff to treatment facilities — such as commercial garages and commercial carwashes — may still use soaps. But she noted that the city's storm sewers empty directly into creeks and streams, meaning that anything that flows into them bypasses such treatment.

An aerial view of the York City Wastewater Treatment Plant on Black Bridge Road in Manchester Township.

"Entire ecosystems may die if we don’t watch what we are doing," she said.

Residents may only use soap to wash cars if the runoff goes into their lawns, patches of grass, or gravel and does not flow into a city storm water sewage drains, according to a press release. Grass and gravel that do not allow runoff act as a natural filtration system for chemicals, Brown said.

Brown recognizes that not everyone may have a lawn to wash their car on or be able to pay for a car wash if they want to use soap. She is working on solutions to help make car washing resources more accessible and encourages residents to reach out to the stormwater management office if they have no place to wash their cars in compliance with the ordinance amendments. 

The ordinance seeks to reduce pollution in creeks and streams and York City has one of the highest runoff pollution rate in the county, Brown said.

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Despite the seemingly sudden announcement, this ordinance has been in the works on a state level for several years. The DEP requires all Pennsylvania municipalities to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. This permit regulates what can and cannot go into commonwealth waters.

Although the ordinance amendments affect everyday life, York City officials say they have a lot to gain from less pollution.

"The less of these polluters going into our storm drains which leads to one of our creeks and streams, which then leads to the Codorus, Susquehanna and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, the better," Brown said. 

Brown, the only employee in the York City storm water management office, said the city tried to get the word out in months leading up to the vote to implement the ordinance. She announced the storm water ordinances that were going to be presented to the city council via newsletters and social media blasts. She also invited residents to attend the meetings before the vote to voice concerns and ask questions.

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Two stormwater ordinances were amended at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting, according to the city website. To enforce these ordinances, Brown relies on a public tip line and on fellow city employees to report violations they may see.

When it comes to enforcement, Brown prefers to educate residents first and utilize citations as a last resort. She will go out to the site of a reported violation and speak with the residents in person and hand out educational information.  

“I’m not out to write tickets, that’s not my philosophy," she said. "I always like to educate first and take it from there.”

Citations, Brown said, will be the last step in cases where a resident refuses to follow the city ordinances.

Water going into storm drains should be as clean as possible, she said. If pollution is not addressed, local streams and the creatures who call them home will be harmed. And, perhaps more pressing for the humans who must follow the ban, the cost of supplying clean drinking water will increase.

— Reach Noel Miller at NMiller3@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.