Riverkeeper plans more testing as utility promises action on sewer overflows

Noel Miller
York Dispatch

A Harrisburg water utility has until December 2024 to submit a plan to control sewage overflows directly into the Susquehanna River, and thus reduce the release of raw sewage and other contaminants that impacts water quality downstream.

Just last summer, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper found that 56% of samples collected from near sewer outflows in the capital city had levels of E-coli that "that would be unsafe for swimming or water-contact recreation."

The Enviromental Protection Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Enviromental Protection sued Harrisburg and Capital Region Water, its local water authority, over the overflows in 2015. This week, those involved in the lawsuit announced a modified consent decree requiring more work to prevent the release of pollutants.

MORE:Tiny York City's homicide rate last year topped Philadelphia, New York and Chicago

MORE:Restaurant Week York is almost here

MORE:What does Pa.'s landmark education ruling mean for York County schools?

Of course, the consent decree is only the first step.

Under the terms, Capital Region Water would be required to develop a plan to drastically cut the kinds of sewer overflows that routinely happen during major rain events.

“Given Harrisburg’s long history of failing to address this obvious public health hazard, it is critical that EPA and DEP hold Capital Region Water strictly accountable for compliance with the modified consent decree’s deadlines and terms," said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, who's closely monitored the situation for years.

Water sampling with local environmentalists Ted Evgeniadis, from Mt. Wolf, in Hallam on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

It’s not just Harrisburg waters that have E. coli in them either. Four miles down the river, Steelton also reports high levels of E-coli in its waters. Evgeniadis said he plans to expand monitoring south of Harrisburg, including Wrightsville in York County.

“The levels of bacteria are so high that I would assume that we're going to see impacts, you know, further south than Steelton,” Evgeniadis said.

>> Please consider subscribing to support local journalism. 

After failing to make progress on reducing overflows, the Riverkeeper and the Enviromental Integrity Project held a legal intervention in 2021. Now, the federal government has intervened and updated the consent decree established in 2015. The update set a deadline to submit a long-term overflow control plan by Dec. 31, 2024. Monetary penalties have also been added, some ranging up to $3,000 a day.

Water sampling with local environmentalists Ted Evgeniadis, the lower Susquehanna riverkeeper from Mt. Wolf, and Cindy Pizziketti, from Springettsbury, along the Kruetz Creek in Hallam on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022.

Both the Riverkeeper and the Enviromental Integrity Project have researched solutions to similar problems in other U.S. cities and believe they could be used for Harrisburg's solution. Some of these are constructing underground retention basins to hold sewage until it can be treated or creating separate sewer lines and pumping stations to halt overflow.

Reducing overflows in the Capital Region Water sewer system will likely come at the expense to the utility's ratepayers due to costs associated with upgrading Harrisburg's combined sewer system, meaning that sanitary sewage — everything that gets flushed down toilets — and stormwater use the same network of pipes.

In December, the utility's board approved a $2.55-per-month increase to wastewater fees in order to fund, in part, a planned $58 million in projects to help address sewer overflows and other runoff issues.

In a written statement, Capital Region Water CEO Charlotte Katzenmoyer said the utility hasn't wavered in its commitment to ensuring clean water in and around Harrisburg.

“We encourage public comment now and will continue to provide various opportunities for the public to provide input on a larger plan to control combined sewer overflow events, which are a symptom of our dated, aging infrastructure,” Katzenmoyer said.

Stakeholders and customers may comment on the modified consent decree at https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees for the next month.

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