The United States and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), filed a civil lawsuit against the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority (the Authority), alleging violations of the federal Clean Water Act and Pennsylvania Clean Steams Law. The violations primarily consist of sanitary sewer overflows – typically in the form of wastewater overflowing from manholes – and operation and maintenance violations under its state-issued permits.
At the same time the civil suit was filed, the United States and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania also filed a proposed consent decree that would resolve the lawsuit subject to the district court’s approval. The Authority will pay a $450,000 penalty and will be obligated to devote substantial resources to evaluate and upgrade its sewer systems as part of the decree.
The Authority owns and operates hundreds of miles of sewer pipes and associated treatment plants and wastewater collection and conveyance systems, largely situated in Bucks County. The Authority’s service areas have historically suffered from sanitary sewer overflows, including over 100 that have occurred in Plumstead Township since 2014. In that timeframe, multiple overflows have also occurred in Bensalem, Richland, Doylestown Borough, Middletown, Upper Dublin and New Hope/Solebury.
Sanitary sewer overflows constitute unauthorized discharges of pollutants into waterways. Properly designed, operated and maintained sanitary sewer systems are meant to collect and transport sewage to a treatment facility. Overflows occur for a variety of reasons, including severe weather, improper system design, equipment failures, poor management, improper operation and maintenance and vandalism.
Sanitary sewer overflows pose a substantial risk to public health and the environment. The main pollutants in raw sewage from overflows are bacteria, pathogens, nutrients, untreated industrial wastes, toxic pollutants, such as oil, pesticides, wastewater solids and debris.
Along with the financial penalty, the Authority has agreed to evaluate its collection system and adopt extensive measures to ensure compliance with the federal and state requirements. These include monitoring water flow; modelling the collection system; conducting inflow and infiltration evaluations; identifying and remedying hydraulic capacity limitations; addressing illegal sewer connections; and improving its overall operation and maintenance program.
“We’re pleased that the water and sewer authority has agreed to take extensive steps to upgrade and improve sewer systems for Bucks County, particularly the Plumstead area,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The federal Clean Water Act requires communities to eliminate or reduce their sewage overflows into the nation’s rivers, lakes, and oceans. Today’s agreement furthers that and will result in a cleaner, safer Delaware River.”
“The consent decree will mean less sewage in streets, basements, and waterways to improve the lives of citizens in Bucks County,” said U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “We thank the Authority for working cooperatively to reach this resolution that will surely improve public health and environmental quality.”
“Sewer overflows pollute rivers and streams and can expose local residents to toxic pollutants,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement will reduce sewer overflows, which mean a cleaner, safer environment for residents of Bucks County.”
“Protecting the air, land, and water from pollution, while providing for the health and safety of our citizens is the very mission of our agency,” said Secretary Patrick McDonnell of DEP. “We are accomplishing just that through this coordinated and cooperative effort, not only with our federal partners at EPA, but with the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority as well.”
The Authority cooperated with the investigation. As part of the settlement, it did not admit liability for the alleged violations.
The proposed consent decree, which has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. The consent decree will be available for viewing at https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.
The case was handled by Civil Chief Gregory B. David, former Assistant U.S. Attorney John T. Crutchlow, and Pamela Lazos, Senior Assistant Regional Counsel for the EPA. Supervisory Counsel William H. Gelles handled the case on behalf of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s DEP.