Credit: (Dominique Alves via Flickr)
Combined sewer outlet

When her local sewer system overflows during heavy rains, Hayley Benson has endured years of sewage flooding into her basement. And now she’s glad that the utility finally demanded to fix it.

Benson, a resident of North Bergen Township in Hudson County, was one of about a dozen people who spoke at the first public hearing in New Jersey on a new draft permit designed to curb flooding from combined sewer overflows (CSOs), aging systems, that mix sewage with stormwater during heavy storms, dumping toxic runoff into rivers, streets, and even people’s basements.

“I was born and raised in North Bergen and witnessed a lot of torrential rain and sewage in my basement,” she said during an online hearing Monday. “It was so disgusting. I am very grateful that we have been given the first opportunity … to repair our poor sewage systems.”

The Benson system, a Woodcliff sewage treatment plant operated by the North Bergen Municipal Utility Authority (NBMUA), is among CSO systems in 21 communities with a population of approximately 1.6 million people. Runoff threatens public health and environmental quality, especially if climate change brings larger and more frequent storms that worsen flooding.

Benson and others spoke in support of the first two permits — one for the North Bergen utility company and the other for the city-operated Gutenberg plant on the Hudson River — that were issued by the Department of Environmental Protection in December.

More green infrastructure

But speakers urged the agency to do more to include green infrastructure, such as rain gardens and porous pavement, in permit requirements. They also asked the state to involve overburdened communities in discussing this and future permits, and to advise cities and utilities on funding sources to pay for the upgrades.

They also called for the permits to include new requirements in the state’s Protection against Climate Threats (PACT) regulations, an overhaul based on increased flood risk for both inland and coastal areas.

“We’re excited to see that the flood protection plan is based on sea level rise data,” Patricia Duncock of the nonprofit New Jersey Future said in one of a series of five-minute remarks.

But she asked, “How does DEP incorporate New Jersey’s PACT regulations into this permit and future permits? Will future hydrologic modeling be updated based on precipitation data and simulations?”

Under the rule, the two utilities would have to eliminate or capture at least 92% of the combined sewage and stormwater collected in their systems during wet weather over the next five years, up from the current minimum requirement of 85% and their current capture rate is 89%, according to the permits.

Ensuring environmental justice

Utilities also have a responsibility to involve green justice communities in their plans, especially in the deployment of green infrastructure, and to ensure that their strengthened facilities will operate under extreme conditions, including those resulting from climate change. Another seven draft permits are planned to be issued this year.

According to a May 2021 DEP letter to officials from the two utilities, the cost of expanding NBMUA’s Woodcliff Wastewater Treatment Plant to meet permit requirements will be $23 million. Other estimates for the Gutenberg plant ranged from $500,000 for a sewer separation project to $100,000 over five years for green infrastructure plant boxes.

Suzanne Aptman, program manager for Sewer Streets and Rivers, a collaborative organization supported by New Jersey Future, said it’s unclear where the money will come from.

“We’ve been pushing NJDEP to clarify the funding streams, not just for us, but for the general public, who have a right to know whether these mandatory improvements will be financed through low-interest loans, grants, bonds, rate hikes, or some combination. of it,” she said.

For low-income communities served by utilities that face large costs to upgrade their infrastructure, the EPA provides affordability guidelines that offer more time for those utilities to comply with permitting requirements. But it’s not yet clear whether New Jersey will follow the federal guidelines, said Larry Levin, director of urban water infrastructure for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Time limits

“When these permit projects start coming out, we’ll see how the state responds — whether they offer permits that give these cities as much time as they want, or whether the state says you can’t have 20 or 30 years,” Levin said. “You have to do it quickly, and we put the onus on you to sort this out. “

The health department will have to balance its responsibility to clean the streets of sewage with an assessment of the community’s ability to pay over a period of time, Levin said.

To help pay for upgrades, cities and utilities can get low-cost loans from the Water Bank, a joint venture between DEP and the State Infrastructure Bank. Dan Kennedy, senior director of the Public Transportation Contractors Association, told the hearing that funds are available at those facilities.

“We’re in a great position in the state of New Jersey, better than we’ve been in the past, to fund infrastructure,” he said.

Combined sewer systems were built decades ago to collect rainwater, snowmelt runoff, domestic and industrial wastewater into one pipe.

New combined sewer systems are no longer permitted in New Jersey, but the state allows existing systems to operate, mostly in older regions such as the New York-New Jersey Harbors and the Camden and Gloucester City areas along the Delaware River in South Jersey .

“Discharges from these systems can pose a threat to public health by degrading receiving waterways and causing combined sewage and stormwater to flood streets,” DEP said in a statement announcing the permits in December.

The agency said it is now scheduling projects to address combined sewer overflows, including expanding treatment facilities, building reservoirs and creating rain gardens to reduce stormwater flow into sewer systems.

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