When a powerful storm unleashed 2 inches of rain on Allentown over six hours last summer, that water didn't just saturate lawns, flood roads and dampen basements. It also filled storm sewers with cascading water that blew the tops off manholes along the bloated sewage collection system.
Before long, a cocktail of storm water and raw sewage spewed from a busted manhole on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and flowed into the Little Lehigh Creek for more than 12 hours in June 2012, the city later reported to state environmental regulators.
It's the type of event that has repeated itself over and over in the city and across western Lehigh County for years, threatening drinking water sources for Allentown and its suburbs.
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the problem be fixed once and for all by 2014.
Lehigh County municipalities and sewer-service providers have collectively responded by spending nearly $25 million during the past four years to end what the EPA calls "sewer overflows." But they say they are unlikely to meet the deadline, even though they could face stiff financial penalties for future spills.
"From the beginning when the order was issued, everyone recognized that a five-year time frame was very, very short to address the kinds of things included here," said Liesel Adam, spokeswoman for the Lehigh County Authority, which has asked for a five-year extension on the order. "It's a systemwide issue involving a lot of infrastructure. It's a pretty complicated project."
"We're not going to have it done by the end of next year," echoed William Erdman, an engineer from Keystone Consulting Engineers, which represents some of the more than two dozen municipalities and authorities named in the order. "There's a general recognition of that."
Not by the Little Lehigh Watershed Coalition, a group formed in the 1980s to protect the Little Lehigh Creek. Michael Siegel, a Lower Macungie Township resident and member of the coalition, says he and others will be watching the deadline closely and may ask the state to impose a ban on new sewer connections if overflows continue after the deadline.
For the past four years, sewer authorities and municipalities have been replacing and repairing leaky manholes, investigating ways to reduce the amount of storm water infiltrating cracked pipes and cracking down on illegal connections to the sewer system from roofs and basements.
Despite all the work done and money spent, with still much more to be done in the coming years, overflows are likely to continue, officials say, just not as often.
"We're probably not going to be able to say with 100 percent assurance that 100 percent of [sewer overflows] will be eliminated," Adam said.
Progress reports submitted semiannually to the EPA since December 2009 and reviewed by The Morning Call show municipalities and authorities have collectively taken unprecedented steps to shore up sewer systems that date to the 1970s or earlier.
They've been systematically inspecting and testing miles of pipe for leaks and, in some cases, replacing pipes. They also have been repairing, sealing and replacing manhole covers and visiting countless homes to inspect roofs and basements in search of roof drains, sump pumps and other contraptions that have been unnecessarily and illegally adding water volume to sewer pipes.
To date, nearly $25 million has been spent on those projects, according to figures provided by municipalities and authorities. That price tag includes $14 million the Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority spent to replace piping along its Jordan Creek and Coplay Creek interceptors.
Lehigh County Authority says it has spent nearly $3 million for sewer system work related to the EPA order, while Lower Macungie and Allentown each reported spending $1.5 million.
Much of the money has gone for engineering costs for various projects. In many cases that cost is being passed on to ratepayers connected to the public sewer system.
For example, Upper Macungie Township increased its rates by about $20 per year in 2010 and by an additional $16 this year. The Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority approved a $20-per-year hike in 2012. Lower Macungie raised its rates by about $20 this year. Allentown in 2010 raised its combined water/sewer rates by about $40 per year, the first increase in six years.
Upper Macungie Township Authority manager Richard Henderson said the repairs being made should be done regardless of the EPA order. He said his agency commits about $400,000 annually to sewer system work.
"You've got to keep up with it or the system is going to get worse and worse," he said.
The EPA put its foot down in September 2009, following discharges of raw sewage into the Lehigh River, Little Lehigh Creek, Cedar Creek and Jordan Creek dating to 2003. The discharges, which occurred at various points in lines carrying sewage from the suburbs to the city's Kline's Island sewage treatment plant, violate the federal Clean Water Act. The EPA says it has not issued any fines or penalties since imposing the order.
Named in the order were Allentown, Lehigh County Authority, Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority, the boroughs of Alburtis, Emmaus and Macungie and the townships of Hanover, Lower Macungie, Lowhill, Salisbury, South Whitehall, Upper Macungie, Upper Milford and Weisenberg.
The EPA issued a similar order in 2007 to Allentown, whose discharges historically have accounted for most of the raw sewage sent to creeks.
The orders are somewhat complicated by the fact that Allentown began leasing its sewer system to the Lehigh County Authority on Aug. 10.
The EPA says the new arrangement does not affect the order.
"How they choose to get the work done and contract the work" is up to them, said Jon Capacasa, director of the EPA Mid-Atlantic Region's water protection division.
Adam said the authority and city are still discussing their responsibilities under the lease. The agreement calls for the LCA to be responsible for all studies and work related to the order. The city is responsible for project costs. The agreement says the LCA will not be held liable for any fines or penalties under the EPA order unless the penalties come as a result of the LCA's failing to implement the order.
The EPA has asked the authority to justify its request for a deadline extension but hasn't received a response, Capacasa said last week.
"We believe the deadline is still in force and on pace," Capacasa said. "We believe they're on a good path to comply with the order."
The EPA says sewage overflows across the country pose one of the greatest threats to oceans, streams, rivers and lakes, which provide food and drinking water, and support recreation and local economies. Raw sewage can carry bacteria and viruses that can cause illnesses from mild stomach cramps to life-threatening diseases, such as cholera and dysentery, the agency says.
The EPA cites a 1994 survey of sewerage agencies nationwide that showed 65 percent had sewer overflows caused by wet weather and that 15 percent to 35 percent of their sewers were filled to capacity during major storms.
That has been the problem locally, where water from heavy storms makes its way through sewer pipe cracks, filling those pipes beyond what both they and the treatment plant can handle, a capacity problem that often pops manhole covers.
For example, Allentown reported too many overflowing manholes to count during a two-day September 2010 storm that dumped nearly 8 inches of rain on the Lehigh Valley, according to EPA records. The city indicated in the report that the exact number of sewage overflows was not known.
A 2010 Morning Call review of state and federal records found that more than 33 million gallons of raw sewage entered the Little Lehigh Creek from 1999 to 2008. More recent records show that sewage overflows have continued to occur over the past five years.
The EPA received reports of 123 overflows along the sewer system — reported by Allentown, the Lehigh County Authority, South Whitehall and Upper Macungie — between 2008 and January 2012. More than 400,000 gallons of sewage were reported to have been released during those overflows. However, that amount is likely much higher because for one-third of the overflows reported, the quantity of sewage released was listed as "unknown."
The EPA does not have available overflow reports since January 2012, but the state Department of Environmental Protection says it has received reports on five overflows along the system since 2012.
The Little Lehigh, where much of the sewage has flowed, supplies about one-third of Allentown's drinking water, which is treated to kill any bacteria before going to customers.
The city also supplies water to Salisbury, South Whitehall and Hanover townships in Lehigh County.
The drinking water intake is upstream from where raw sewage has overflowed from the treatment plant. City officials have said the water supply hasn't been threatened and noted the intake is turned off during major rainstorms because of the amount of dirt, silt and other material washed into the creek.
Few data exist on the direct impact of the sewage on the quality of the Little Lehigh. A March 2010 state report concluded the Little Lehigh exceeded fecal-coliform and total-coliform bacteria benchmarks for drinking before treatment or swimming, an indication of sewage contamination but not a direct link.
The EPA says it has not taken any enforcement action relative to its 2009 order, but the sewage overflows could carry hefty penalties beginning in 2015.
Violations will carry penalties of up to $37,500 daily for each civil violation and up to $50,000 per day for criminal violations.
"We're doing everything in our power [to meet the deadline]," said Joseph Marx Jr., who sits on the Coplay Whitehall Sewer Authority's board of directors. "The ramifications of not complying could be very costly to our ratepayers through fines."
But the EPA has allowed for some wiggle room in determining whether overflows are fine-worthy.
Capacasa said the agency uses "a lot of discretion" when addressing violations of its orders. He acknowledged that while the EPA expects sewer overflows to be eliminated, "it may be difficult to eliminate all overflows under all conditions."
He said an extraordinary event such as a hurricane may create extenuating circumstances.
"We use discretion where there are acts of nature and acts of God," he said. "We would use enforcement discretion in dealing with anything that's a huge [weather] event."
Residents living along the Little Lehigh Creek are watching closely.
Siegel, who lives near the waterway in Lower Macungie, said his group has considered filing a lawsuit to prohibit new sewer hookups until the overflow problem is fixed, but an attorney advised waiting until after the EPA's 2014 deadline.
"I want to give the municipalities the benefit of the doubt [that they'll meet the order's mandates]," Siegel said. "But the first time it overflows, I'm going to be hot on them.
"I do not want to see the Little Lehigh turn into a septic field."
2009 EPA ORDER
"Related to the various wet weather events between July 21, 2003, and the present, the system has discharged and will discharge untreated wastewater from various discharge points located prior to the headworks of the Allentown [Waste Water Treatment Plant], including, but not limited to, outfall 003 of the Allentown system, the Little Lehigh Relief Interceptor, as well as others located throughout the system. These [sanitary sewer overflows ] discharge into the Lehigh River, the Little Lehigh [Creek], Cedar Creek and Jordan Creek. The discharges referenced … constitute unauthorized discharges of pollutants into waters of the United States, in violation of Section 301 (a) of the CWA (Clean Water Act)."