Between 1999 and 2004, the City of Duluth and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) experienced the dumping of at least 47 million gallons of untreated sewage into the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"We have made great progress over the past 10 years in reducing overflows, but now our challenge is to eliminate them completely," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said. "All told, the city will spend between $70 to $90 million in upgrades to our sanitary sewer infrastructure."
Still happening in 2009, these overflows generally happen during times of heavy rain. Clear water enters and overwhelms the sewer system leading to untreated sewage flowing into parts of the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.
A consent decree was logged in the U.S. District Court 8, into which Minnesota falls, on June 23 of 2009. The decree is a legal document created by the EPA, Department of Justice, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It requires the City of Duluth and WLSSD to completely eliminate sewer overflows into Lake Superior by 2016.
Karen Anderson, director of Community Relations at WLSSD said, "Economically speaking, it is better to stop the problem at the source [homes and businesses]. However, the deadlines in the consent decree don't allow enough time for this."
According to Anderson, storm water from homes and businesses is supposed to be absorbed into the ground or flow out into the street, down the storm sewer and eventually into Lake Superior during heavy rain. But in many Duluth homes with aging or illegal plumbing connections, storm water enters the sanitary sewer lines and overwhelms the system. This causes the sewage and rainwater mixture to overflow into the natural environment.
Though overflows still occur, the improvements made to the sewer systems to date have already resulted in a big difference. A heavy rainstorm on Aug. 19 overwhelmed the sewer system at seven locations, leading to 790,000 gallons of sewage dumping into Lake Superior according to WLSSD. A comparable rainstorm in October 2005 overflowed the systems at 25 locations and totaled about 11.4 million gallons.
"So far, the city has paid about a half million in fines to the EPA for past overflows. Within the consent decree, if we fail to comply with the order, the fines could very quickly range into multimillion dollars to the feds every year. We want to avoid that if at all possible," Ness said.
And as the other defendant of the consent decree, WLSSD has, according to Anderson, "Already spent $20 million to correct sewer overflows since 2002, and we'll need to spend another $30 million in our part of the system" she said.