Billions of gallons of human waste, stormwater released into Susquehanna River, according to released report

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Sewage is overflowing into the Susquehanna River, according to a new report. The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper tested the water this summer and found E. coli levels at more than 10 times higher than safe levels.

"It is disgusting that when I'm out there kayaking," said Tom Pelton, with Environmental Integrity Project. "I have to have human feces and waste around me."

'Sewage overflows in Pennsylvania's Capital' report released by Environmental Integrity Project details 1.4 billion gallons of human waste mixed with stormwater was released into the Susquehanna River in 2018, up from 789 million gallons in 2016.

"This problem is getting worse, not better," said Pelton. "And that problem needs to be addressed."

The report attributes much of the sewage overflow to Capital Region Water's combined sewage and stormwater system. Capital Region Water plans to improve its sewage and stormwater system over the next 20 year. It issued this response to FOX43 in response to the report:

Capital Region Water is committed to reducing combined sewer overflows that impact our waterways and is working towards a significant reduction that works within the financial constraints of city residents. The City Beautiful H2O program plan includes both short- and long-term projects intended to have immediate and ongoing improvements to the system that will reduce overflows in the City of Harrisburg.

The challenges faced by the City’s system did not develop overnight and are the result of an aging system and decades of underinvestment. We recognize the lack of past actions had detrimental impacts on the system, and Capital Region Water has been proactively addressing deficiencies. More than $110M has been invested in the system over the past five years, and Capital Region Water will continue funding infrastructure improvements and modernizations for years to come as we work to meet our water quality obligations.

Unfortunately, it is idealistic to believe the City of Harrisburg can completely eliminate overflows in the immediate future given the substantial revenue that would be necessary to overhaul and update infrastructure. Capital Region Water’s planning is focused on creating the greatest water quality impact within the financial capability of our ratepayers.

A good deal of the City Beautiful H2O program plan is focused on a twenty-year planning horizon which is what is typically seen for many consent decree timelines. The program will continue beyond the efforts we undertake during the next 20-years. The program will continue (for decades) with the ultimate goal of receiving water quality attainment that will meet the small number of overflow events that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expecting, but our rate base cannot afford to eliminate overflow activity within this typical 20-year compliance schedule. Thirty-two percent of City residents live below the Federal Poverty Level. We simply cannot place an undue burden on these residents and must strike a balance of affordability with infrastructure needs. The $315MM program CRW has proposed will maintain the average sewer ratepayer bill at the “high burden” level or 2% of median household income. But we know those same rates will exceed 5% of the household income for a significant portion of the City’s population.

We are working with state and federal regulatory agencies to meet water quality targets, and we believe the stormwater fee proposed through the City Beautiful H2O program plan is the most fair and equitable approach to meeting those goals. Numerous factors were taken into consideration as the City Beautiful H2O program plan was being developed, and the plan places Capital Region Water and the City of Harrisburg on the path to achieving overflow reduction goals.

We share the collective concerns about the quality of our waterways and want to be a leader in modeling solutions that will help protect our creeks, rivers, and streams for generations to come.

The Environmental Integrity Project is calling on the governor and legislature to ensure the future of Pennsylvania's waterways remain as clean as possible.

"It's really the state of Pennsylvania's responsibility and they need to step up and solve this water solution problems in their backyard."

FOX43 reached out to the State House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committees about this report but have not heard back.

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