Mar 16, 2001

Sewage Testing Creates Suspicion

A review of Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District records by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows the district has been performing test in the middle of the night while people are sleeping to report on how the sewage treatment plant is doing since it privatized its treatment operations three years ago.

District officials defend early morning testing for fecal and offer plausible explanations why they test at such hours. Not surprisingly, they also resent any implication that they test at those times in an attempt to skew the results in their favor.

The district already is under fire because of ongoing dumping of sewage into area waterways. Also, four instances in which pumps that draw sewage out of the deep tunnels to the Jones Island treatment plant were curiously turned off before fecal sampling, which is being investigated, the article reported.

District officials claim that average sewage flow around 3 a.m. is actually slightly higher than the average daily rate of flow. The reason, they say, has to do with how long it takes sewage to make its way from the 420-square-mile district to Jones Island and, once there, the six to 12 hours it takes sewage to make its way through the plant. That means, officials say, that wastewater tested at 3 a.m. actually left most households and businesses anywhere from 6.5 to 20 hours earlier.

District officials concede that until United Water Services took over operation of the treatment plant and deep tunnels in March 1998, the district routinely checked for fecal coliform from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The testing was changed to early in the morning three years ago to improve operating efficiency and accommodate workers' schedules, officials say. District officials say their test results routinely exceed standards set by the Department of Natural Resources.

Jay Hochmuth, a DNR official, says the Milwaukee district has a "first-class system, one of the best in the country." But Hochmuth also pointed out that the DNR had no idea the district was doing its fecal testing in the middle of the night and that the issue is subsequently under review.