Tag Archives: sewage

Human waste pollutes some Wisconsin drinking water

Experts say Wisconsin needs tougher laws to protect resource from contamination by sewage and septic waste; state says it is reviewing landspreading rules

Manure has been blamed for much of the bacteria and viruses that pollute Wisconsin drinking water, but contamination from human waste is a problem, too.

Failing septic systems, leaking public sewer pipes and landspreading of septic waste can introduce dangerous pathogens into both rural and urban water systems.

In June 2007, 229 people were sickened by a norovirus in Door County while eating at a restaurant. Seven were hospitalized as a result of a pathogen known for spreading illness on cruise ships. The source: a leaky septic system.

In 2012, a microbiologist published research that linked widespread gastrointestinal illnesses in 14 Wisconsin communities to viruses in the public water systems. Further research showed the contaminants were likely coming from leaking municipal sewage lines.

That same year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that top Department of Natural Resources officials went easy on a political supporter of Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, after the donor was caught violating septic waste spreading rules on fields near 40 drinking water wells, potentially exposing residents to nitrate, which can cause “blue baby syndrome,” and illness-causing pathogens.

In 1993, Wisconsin experienced the most deadly waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history. One hundred people died and 403,000 became sick in Milwaukee when cryptosporidium contaminated the city’s drinking water. Lab tests confirmed the parasite had come from human waste.

Some experts say the state’s septic regulations and well standards are not adequate to protect public health in areas of Wisconsin with fractured bedrock, such as Door County.

In addition, municipal water systems in Wisconsin are not required to test for or treat water to kill viruses because the Legislature in 2011 rescinded a rule that would have mandated such action. And a study by a retired hydrogeologist has found that the state sometimes fails to enforce regulations that ban spreading untreated septic waste on fields vulnerable to groundwater pollution.

Septic systems are the main line of defense in rural areas against water contamination from human waste. The potentially lethal waterborne disease outbreak at a new restaurant in Door County in June 2007 illustrates the weakness of existing regulation, especially in areas with fractured bedrock.

In a 2011 paper in the journal Ground Water, a team of Wisconsin scientists investigated the outbreak, which began with four employees who got acute gastroenteritis. The virus that caused the sickness also was detected in the restaurant’s new water well and septic system.

Researchers concluded that the cracked bedrock under the restaurant, which is common in eastern Wisconsin, allowed waste from the broken septic system to move rapidly into the restaurant’s drinking water well.

The scientists noted that Door County and other areas that sit atop such karst geology have long dealt with the vulnerability of their fractured limestone aquifers to such contamination. They cited a Nov. 22, 1955, headline from the Door County Advocate newspaper warning that local geology had been tied to cases of “summer flu.”

Most residents, the researchers wrote, assume that waste from septic systems is biodegraded by soil on the way down to the groundwater and then safely diluted. But that is not always true.

Experts: Stricter rules needed

The researchers recommended that the state should reconsider allowing conventional septic systems to be built above fractured limestone aquifers, especially those serving facilities such as restaurants that generate a lot of wastewater.

John Teichtler, Door County’s sanitarian, said recent surveys show that about one-third of 6,450 septic systems inspected in his county were classified as failing to work. Teichtler said systems are considered to be failing when they do not meet current standards requiring 3 feet of soil to bedrock, are discharging to the surface or allowing waste to back up into buildings.

Sampling results in Door County, according to the University of Wisconsin-Extension, show that at any one time in the county, at least one-third of the private wells contain bacteria from animal or human waste.

Ken Bradbury, director of the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey and one of the authors of the Ground Water paper, said he believes the state’s septic laws must be updated to account for the susceptibility of areas such as Door County.

“There is still the perception that just because there is a septic system that meets code, everything is fine,” Bradbury said. “Well, everything is not fine.”

In its 2015 report to the Legislature, the Wisconsin Groundwater Coordinating Council, a multi-agency panel that advises state government on drinking water issues, also issued a stern call for tougher rules for septic systems and well construction in geology marked by fractured bedrock. Current requirements in these areas, the report said, “are inadequate to protect public health and the environment.”

Despite the dangers of contamination from septic systems, Gov. Scott Walker last year proposed eliminating the Wisconsin Fund, which provides money for low-income families to replace failing systems. The fund provided $2.3 million to 500 low-income property owners in 2014-15.

Officials in Shawano County, which opposed Walker’s proposal, pegged the cost of replacing a septic system at $6,000 to $7,000 for a traditional system and as much as $14,000 for a mound system that provides more protection in areas of fractured bedrock.

In the final budget, the Legislature partially restored the fund but slashed it to $1.6 million this year and $840,000 in 2016-17 — a move criticized by John Hausbeck, who oversees Dane County’s septic program.

“There are homeowners everywhere in the state that do not have the money to replace a septic system,” Hausbeck said. “So they limp along until they end up with water contamination.”

Landspreading under fire

Enforcement of state laws regulating landspreading of septic waste on farm fields also has come under criticism.

In 2015, a citizen watchdog group called the Dunn County Groundwater Guardian Community found 150 sites on which the state DNR allows spreading of septic waste that were below or near the minimum standard for proper soil percolation, or the rate at which water and contaminants move through the soil. Under state law, fields with soil percolation rates greater than 6 inches per hour cannot be used for landspreading.

Neil Koch, a retired hydrologist who organized the citizen group and developed the map of percolation rates, found that 150 of the 400 sites used for spreading septic waste in Dunn County had rates of 5 to 20 inches per hour. Koch said the DNR also recently told him the agency had failed to notify him of an additional 90 landspreading sites in the county.

In a March letter to Koch, Susan Sylvester, director of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau, acknowledged that the sites he identified did not meet minimal requirements but said reduced application rates were approved because of a low threat to drinking water. Sylvester said lime is added to the waste to kill pathogens, and exposure to sunlight and heat further reduce the risk.

Sylvester added, however, that the agency is reevaluating septage and other landspreading sites throughout Wisconsin. And she noted that compliance checks in Wood County have prompted an increase in septage being hauled to wastewater treatment plants — an option Koch has identified as an “easy solution” to the problem.

Improper application of septic waste in Dunn County, Koch said, “may be the tip of the iceberg.”

Viruses in water also cause illness

Numerous water experts also say the state is failing to protect Wisconsin residents from human and animal viruses in municipal drinking water supplies — some of it tied to leaky municipal sewer systems. Neither federal nor state rules require municipalities to disinfect drinking water drawn from groundwater, which supplies about two-thirds of the state’s potable water, nor are municipalities required to test for viruses.

Viruses are a relative newcomer to the list of pathogens known to endanger drinking water. But the science behind their presence — and their impact on the health of thousands — is already well-documented.

Researcher and microbiologist Mark Borchardt discovered viruses in Wisconsin groundwater in a series of studies while working for Marshfield Clinic. In 2004, for example, Borchardt found that 50 percent of water samples collected from four La Crosse municipal wells tested positive for disease-causing viruses, including enteroviruses, rotavirus, hepatitis A and norovirus.

During 2006 and 2007, Borchardt looked at 14 Wisconsin communities with populations above 1,300 that did not disinfect their municipal water. Tap water was tested, and 621 households were surveyed to determine if viruses were making families sick.

The studies showed that nearly one-quarter of the samples taken from home faucets were swimming with viruses that can cause illness.

Among the 1,079 children and 580 adults surveyed, there were 1,843 cases of acute gastrointestinal illness during the study period. Borchardt attributed 6 to 22 percent of the cases to contaminated drinking water. Researchers also found that up to 63 percent of acute gastrointestinal illnesses among children younger than age 5 were likely caused by norovirus in the drinking water.

Subsequent studies showed the source of the viruses to be leaking municipal sewer pipes, according to a UW-Extension article by Madeline Gotkowitz, a hydrogeologist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

“Many of these sewers date back to the early 1900s,” wrote Gotkowitz, “and they are cracked and leaky. Inward leakage to these pipes often causes overflows at sewage treatment plants during large rainstorms. However, these pipes also leak raw sewage outward and are common sources of groundwater pollution in urban areas, towns and villages.”

The research illustrates the crucial link between maintenance of infrastructure and water quality. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2013 that it would cost Wisconsin $7.1 billion to adequately maintain and upgrade drinking water systems over the next 20 years. Municipal wastewater treatment updates and repairs alone would cost about $6.4 billion, the group found.

Several years ago, the city of Adams in Adams County replaced its entire water and sewer system. When workers dug up sections of sewer line, they discovered the old clay pipes had disintegrated, city administrator Bob Ellisor told the Wisconsin State Journal in 2009.

“There were some areas where the sewer didn’t exist anymore,” Ellisor said. “The sewage wasn’t really making it to the sewage plant.”

A “relatively simple” way to ensure the safety of water is to disinfect it, Gotkowitz wrote. Yet, the state does not require such treatment — even in the face of Borchardt’s studies.

In 2009, under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, the Natural Resources Board passed a rule requiring disinfection of municipal water by 2013. But in 2011, the Republican-controlled Legislature blocked it on a largely party-line vote. As of February, 56 communities in Wisconsin serving nearly 65,000 people did not treat their water for viruses, according to a report published by Wisconsin Public Radio citing DNR figures.

Among the lawmakers who helped block the rule was then-Rep. Erik Severson, R-Star Prairie, a physician. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that residents would probably prefer occasional sickness to the cost of upgrading municipal water systems.

Todd Ambs, who was the head of the DNR’s Water Division until 2010, recalls being shocked by the decision. Ambs now heads the nonprofit Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, which includes more than 100 groups dedicated to restoring the health of the Great Lakes.

Said Ambs: “That may be, to me, the worst piece of legislation that has gone through the Legislature.”

This report was produced as part of journalism classes participating in The Confluence, a collaborative project involving the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.


Safeguarding your drinking water: What you can do

Wisconsin residents can take a number of steps to make sure their drinking water is safe. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you live in one of the 940,000 households in Wisconsin that rely on a private well, have your water tested or test it yourself. The state Department of Natural Resources recommends getting your well tested once a year for coliform bacteria and any time you notice a change in how your water looks, smells or tastes. Check with your county health department on what contaminants may be found in your area and for which you might also want to test.
  • You can get more information on testing from the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, including details on how to obtain testing kits and the costs of various tests. The test for coliform bacteria, for example, costs $29, as do the tests for lead and nitrate.
  • For those using municipal water, get the consumer confidence report from your local water utility. Or you can access the reports on the DNR’s database of public water systems. Also, find out if your utility disinfects for viruses or uses corrosion control to help keep lead out of pipes.
  • If your home was built before 1984, consider having it assessed for lead in the water. While pre-1950 homes often have lead service lines, some homes built before 1984 may have lead solder on the pipes or fixtures that contain lead. Consult the DNR website for safer ways to use water that may contain lead.
  • Consider a filter for your water. But make sure that the filter you choose is effective for removing the specific contaminants that are in your water. The University of Wisconsin-Extension website has advice on which to choose.

— Ron Seely, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Failure at the Faucet, a yearlong investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, found that hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents are at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic, and other contaminants.

The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality.  

Alan Ashley stands on his mound septic system in Ephraim, Wisconsin, on March 12, 2016. In 1975, Ashley installed what he says was one of the first mound systems in Door County. The cost to replace the system for his four-bedroom house in 2007 was around $14,000. — PHOTO: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Alan Ashley stands on his mound septic system in Ephraim, Wisconsin, on March 12, 2016. In 1975, Ashley installed what he says was one of the first mound systems in Door County. The cost to replace the system for his four-bedroom house in 2007 was around $14,000. — PHOTO: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism


Cruise ships dump a billion gallons of sewage in ocean

Cruise ships dumped more than a billion gallons of sewage in the ocean this year, much of it raw or poorly treated, according to federal data analyzed by Friends of the Earth. The activsit group, releasing its annual report card on cruise ships, called for stronger rules to protect oceans, coasts, sea life and people.

The report shows that some of the 16 cruise lines graded are slowly getting greener; but more than 40 percent of the 167 ships still rely on 35-year-old waste treatment technology. Such systems leave harmful levels of fecal matter, bacteria, heavy metals and other contaminants in the water. By law, wastewater dumped within 3 nautical miles of shore must be treated, but beyond that ships are allowed to dump raw sewage directly into the ocean.

In a reversal from prior years of cooperation and transparency, all 16 major cruise lines refused — through their industry association, Cruise Lines International Association — to respond to Friends of the Earth’s requests for information on their pollution-reduction technologies. So the 2014 Cruise Ship Report card contains a new category — “Transparency,” in which every cruise line received an “F” grade.

“By working to stifle the Cruise Ship Report Card, the industry attempted to shield itself from continued scrutiny of its environmental practices, and obscure data from conscientious consumers who would make different choices based on how a cruise ship or line performs on the report card,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth.

“It’s time for the cruise industry to stop trying to hide the dirty ships in its fleet,” said Keever.

Friends of the Earth’s report card grades cruise lines on four criteria: sewage treatment technology; whether ships can plug into shore-based power and if they use cleaner fuel than required by U.S. and international law; compliance with Alaska’s water quality regulations to protect the state’s coast; and transparency which is a new criteria this year.

Disney Cruise Line, based in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, was ranked as the most environmentally responsible line, earning an A for sewage treatment. Its overall grade would have remained an A if it would have responded to our requests for information but this year it received a C plus.

At the other end of the scale, Carnival Cruise Lines of Doral, Florida — which has the world’s largest fleet of 24 cruise ships but only two with advanced sewage treatment technology —- received an F for sewage treatment again this year. Carnival Lines’ parent company, Carnival Corp. & PLC of Miami and London, also operates six other lines graded by the report card and all seven lines were downgraded for refusal to respond to Friends of the Earth.

“As the industry leader, Carnival Corp. has to step up its environmental game throughout all of its different lines,” said Keever. “No wonder Carnival Corp. refuses to respond to Friends of the Earth or be completely honest with its customers when it continues to use outdated technology that pollutes our oceans and threatens our marine ecosystem health, sea life and all of us.”

The Environmental Protection Agency says an average cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew produces about 21,000 gallons of sewage a day — enough to fill 10 backyard swimming pools in a week. That adds up to more than 1 billion gallons a year for the industry — a conservative estimate, since some new ships carry as many as 8,000 passengers and crew and the report card doesn’t include the entire worldwide fleet.

In addition, each ship generates and dumps about eight times that much “graywater” from sinks, showers and baths, which can contain many of the same pollutants as sewage and significantly affects water quality.

Cruise ships are also responsible for significant amounts of air pollution from the dirty fuel they burn. Even at the dock, cruise ships often run dirty diesel engines to provide electrical power to passengers and crew.

According to the EPA, each day an average cruise ship is at sea it emits more sulfur dioxide than 13 million cars and more soot than 1 million cars. Starting in 2015, cleaner fuel standards in the U.S. and Canada will reduce the amount of sulfur emitted by each ship about 97 percent and the amount of soot by 85 percent, in addition to the interim cleaner fuel standards already in place in North America.

“This is an industry worth billions of dollars that could install the most advanced sewage treatment and air pollution reduction technology available,” said Keever.

Environmental group sues over cruise ships’ sewage discharges

An environmental group is suing in federal court seeking better regulation of cruise ships and the sewage they dump into the ocean.

Friends of the Earth, represented by Earthjustice, want more effective regulation of the industry, said to dump more than a billion gallons of sewage — much of it poorly treated — into the ocean last year.

The group also is seeking better regulation of the sewage discharged from cargo ships and oil tankers.

Friends of the Earth said in a news release on May 1 that the sewage from the ships pollutes beaches, contaminates coral reefs and destroys marine ecology.

Sewage contamination also puts swimmers at elevated risk of illness and can make seafood caught by coastal fishermen unsafe to eat.

Also, discharges from ships disrupt coastal economies.

In 2012, ship sewage contributed to elevated levels of fecal coliform that led to more than 31,000 days of beach advisories and closings.

“Sewage-contaminated waters not only harm sea life, but also harm people who use these waters,” said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director at Friends of the Earth. “These ship sewage discharges contribute to the risk of serious, potentially life-threatening health effects such as gastrointestinal illnesses, hepatitis, ear nose and throat illnesses, vomiting, and respiratory diseases. The EPA reported in 2000 that its ship sewage treatment standards were out of date and needed an update. After 38 years, it is time for EPA to act.”

Sewage discharge close to shore has been banned in the New England area but not in the Northwest, the Gulf of Mexico or the Southeast.

Several years ago, the Friends of the Earth petitioned the EPA and asked that it update its 1976 performance standards and pollution limits for onboard marine sanitation devices — the systems used to treat sewage on ships.

The EPA has not proposed any changes.

A report in 2013 from the group indicated that Disney, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Cunard and Seabourn Cruise Line have installed advanced sewage treatment systems in a majority of their ships, while Carnival, Silversea, Costa and Crystal Cruises received failing grades in the review.

WiGWag: News with a twist

Public proposal

A sailor on the USS New Mexico proposed to his boyfriend in front of about 200 people who were gathered at the submarine base to welcome the boat home from its first deployment. Dylan Kirchner told the Day of New London that he didn’t care that everybody was watching when Machinist’s Mate Jerrel Revels dropped to one knee and popped the question. 

Guns welcome at starbucks

Pro-gun advocates gathered in Starbucks’ stores in August to show their appreciation for the company’s decision to allow weapons inside its locations in states where it’s legal. “Starbucks Appreciation Day” events occurred nationwide, including in Newton, Conn. “Our stores are gathering places for the communities we serve and we respect the diverse views of our customers,” said Zack Hutson. But Starbucks bans free-distribution publications, including this one, from its corporate-owned stores.

Love in the air

New Zealanders Lynley Bendall and Ally Wanikau walked down the aisle of an airplane to exchange vows, becoming one of their nation’s first couple’s to get hitched following the enactment of a new law on Aug. 19. The seatbelt-fasten signs were off. The two have been together 13 years and have  three foster children. Along for the ride was “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson.

Oyez, oyez: An opera

Composer Derrick Wang looked to the U.S. capital to inspire his latest work, an opera about two people who’ve forged a friendship despite being adversaries at work – Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, the tenor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the soprano. Both justices share a love for opera, and they previewed ”Scalia/Ginsburg,” a work in progress, the day after the Court released its rulings on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act.

Out in the ring

Darren Young became the first WWE pro wrestler to publicly come out as gay. When TMZ asked if he thought a gay wrestler could be successful in WWE, he said, “Absolutely. Look at me. I’m a WWE Superstar and, to be honest with you, right now, I’ll tell you I’m gay and I’m happy. Very happy.” WWE issued a statement supporting Young’s decision to come out. 

How hot?

It’s been so hot in China this month that people are frying bacon on manhole covers, eggs are hatching without incubators and a highway billboard caught fire. The heat wave has been the worst in more than a century, with temps reaching 104 degrees and forcing authorities to issue the emergency declaration usually reserved for typhoons.

Travel plans

Fleeing homosexuality and abortion in the United States, a Christian family got lost at sea. Hannah Gastonguay and her family set sail from San Diego for the tiny south Pacific island nation of Kiribati in May. The family, including an infant, hit storms that left them adrift for weeks until they were rescued. Apparently they didn’t realize Kiribati is disappearing under rising ocean levels due to global warming. Leaders are seeking to move its population.

Dangerous territory

New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner aka Carlos Danger called an opponent “grandpa” at a candidates’ forum sponsored by AARP. The 48-year-old Weiner got into it with 69-year-old George McDonald. Weiner said McDonald had “anger” issues. When McDonald angrily replied that he did not, Weiner said, “Yes, you do, Grandpa.” AARP called the remark “unfortunate.”

Lard lump

A London utility company in early August reported finding a 15-ton blob of congealed fat and baby wipes in a sewer drain. The “fatberg” built up over about six months, according to Thames Water. The blockage was discovered after residents were unable to flush their toilets. 

Minor mistake

A Minor League Baseball team affiliated with the Minnesota Twins admits staging a rejection of a marriage proposal as a publicity stunt. Between innings at a Rock Cats game in New Britain, Conn., a man and a woman were on the field for a trivia contest. On the third question, fans heard the man propose and then heard the woman say, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m sorry,” before she fled the field. 

Russia? no way!

Out celebrity Andy Cohen has resigned as co-host of the 2013 Miss Universe competition, scheduled for Nov. 9 in Moscow. Cohen hosted the 2011 and 2012 pageants and was booked to return this year. But he said that he fears for his safety in Russia, which has criminalized gay behavior as well as public support for gay rights.