Heavy rains push sewage into lake, bay

SANDUSKY Last week's beach bacteria levels among the worst of the season, health department says
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Last week's beach bacteria levels among the worst of the season, health department says

Last week's heavy rains did more than cause flooding for many areas of Ohio.

They also added to water pollution problems in Lake Erie by sweeping away dirty water from overloaded sewage treatment systems.

Every week during the summer, the health department takes water samples from local beaches and tests them for bacteria content.

The results released last week were among the worst recorded this year, said Bob England, director of the Environmental Health Division for the Erie County Health Department. Runoff after heavy rains frequently increases bacteria in the lake, he said.

Last week's ratings for Erie County beaches gave failing grades -- "advisory" or "poor" -- for 17 of the 21 beaches tested, with only two beaches rated "good" and two rated "fair." By contrast, late July water quality tests awarded a "good" rating to 17 beaches.

This week's results showed a rebound, with all 21 beaches rated good or fair.

"We had a couple of dry days, and it cleared itself up," England said.

What happened last week is that "we get more flow in the sewers than the sewers can actually handle," said Jack Meyers, sanitary engineer for Erie County.

Storm water mixed with raw sewage "overflows into the streams, ditches and Sandusky Bay," Meyers said.

As an emergency measure, the Plum Brook pump station was used to pump water out of the sewers last week and dump it into a ditch, where it eventually flowed into Sandusky Bay, Meyers said. County officials had to take the emergency measure to keep water from backing up into people's homes and basements, he said.

The county has drafted plans for a 2.4 million-gallon storm retention basin at Plum Brook, so that sewer overflows produced by rainfall can be retained for treatment when the rains stop rather than being dumped into the bay, Meyers said.

Last week at the Huron Basin Wastewater Treatment Plant, a tank overflowed because it could not handle the volume of water, Meyers said.

Erie County and other local governments are coming under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to fix the water pollution problem caused by heavy rainfall.

Every time there's an incident such as the release of raw sewage from the Plum Brook pump station, the county is required to telephone the EPA and tell the agency what happened, Meyers said.

The EPA keeps a record of such incidents and brings the matter up when the county seeks to renew its permits for sewage treatment, asking the county to submit plans for how it's going to fix the problem.

Earlier this month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, surveyed data from U.S. beaches and said Ohio has the worst beaches in the nation when bacteria samples from Lake Erie water are compared with other beaches.

The director of the Council's Midwest office, Henry Henderson, said Ohio's problems are caused by sewage and contaminated runoff from outdated, under-funded treatment systems.