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Municipalities in all states would be required under a proposed federal law to immediately report all sewage overflows to the public.
Thirty-five years after President Nixon signed the Clean Water Act in October 1972, the law still lacks a uniform reporting requirement that would protect public health, said Katherine Baer, healthy waters campaign director for American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Most states, including Wisconsin, are not filling the gap, according to Baer, who will testify Tuesday before the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment in support of the Raw Sewage Overflow Community Right-to-Know Act.
"We've made huge strides in cleaning our waters of waste in the last 35 years, but we still have hundreds of billions of gallons of sewage overflows each year," she said.
A lack of notification is one reason why 3.5 million Americans each year get intestinal illnesses and other infections after swimming in water contaminated with sewage, Baer said, citing an Environmental Protection Agency study. Sewage spills also can threaten drinking water sources in many communities.
"We're alerted for other health risks, like food safety and poor air quality, so why not for sewage?" she said.
Public awareness of the frequency of overflows also could build support for spending more money to improve local systems, according to Baer and one of the congressmen who is sponsoring the legislation.
The overflow right-to-know proposal would require operators of municipal sewage treatment systems to immediately report overflows to local public health officials and state regulators and then notify the public within 24 hours.
Though Wisconsin already requires municipalities to report overflows to the Department of Natural Resources, the regulation stops short of taking the next step of notifying the public, said Duane H. Schuettpelz, the DNR's wastewater chief in Madison.