Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper files legal action against Harrisburg, water company, citing sewage
The riverkeeper and a Washington, D.C.-based group say Capital Region Water isn’t doing enough to stop pollution.
(Harrisburg) — If it’s raining out, the odds are good that human waste is flowing from Harrisburg’s sewers into the Susquehanna River. It’s been a problem for decades, but now the city’s water authority is facing additional legal action over it.
The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project are seeking to join a legal process that will require Capital Region Water to address the problem.
The city and the water company are under a partial consent decree from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to deal with the pollution.
The issue is rooted in Harrisburg’s ancient sewer system, said Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis.
“It’s a combined sewer system, so any time there’s rain, storm water mixes with raw sewage in one pipe, and when the system is too overwhelmed, there is overflow, so all the raw sewage will empty into the river,” Evgeniadis said.
Over the past few years, Evgeniadis and a team of volunteers have collected water samples and documented how this puts people at risk. For example, water samples from last summer showed unsafe E. coli bacteria levels in the river on a third of the days they were collected.
As a result, Evgeniadis said the river is unsafe for swimming or boating around Harrisburg’s City Island — once a popular spot for families and children.
Capital Region Water has levied a stormwater fee for city residents, but that money isn’t being used to address the cause, said Tom Pelton at the Environmental Integrity Project, a group that seeks to make sure environmental regulations are enforced.
Pelton said the water company’s plan involves what’s known as “green” infrastructure, when what is needed are overflow tanks that would keep stormwater combined with raw sewage from dumping into the Susquehanna.
“Capital Region water has raised rates, but not to solve the problem, and to spend $315 million not to solve the problem is an outrageous waste of taxpayer dollars,” Pelton said.
Capital Region Water is discussing new opportunities to significantly reduce combined sewer overflows, and the community will be able to weigh in on changes to its plan, said spokeswoman Rebecca Laufer.
Laufer said the water company must balance its long-term effort to curb river pollution with efforts to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.
She noted that funds from the stormwater fee residents are paying are being used to launch green infrastructure projects over the next five years. After that money is used, the company will get another loan using the fee to continue constructing green infrastructure projects.
Methods for storing polluted water until it can be sent to a wastewater plant will also play into the plan eventually, Laufer said, though those planned “decentralized” methods are different from the large storage areas Pelton and Evegeniadis proposed.
“This decentralized green-gray infrastructure is as effective as large storage tunnels but more affordable for a financially-challenged city like Harrisburg,” Laufer said.
The office of Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse said the mayor does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Brett Sholtis was a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health until early 2023. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.