To understand where these requirements come from we have to step back a bit and see the bigger picture. Sewage as a health danger has been known for hundreds of years. So the original goal for a community was to get it away from themselves. When communities were small and spread out, they could always dump their waste downstream from where they wanted to get their own drinking water from. When the amount of waste was small and it was a long distance downriver to the next community, that could work okay. But as communities grew and filled in the unpopulated areas between them, it became increasingly hard to find an empty place downstream to dump an increasingly lot of waste. The federal government was empowered through The Clean Water Act and created the EPA to sort these things out. Any facility discharging wastewater needs a federal permit. All permits are written to ensure that the waters being dumped into will still meet water quality standards. Working with the EPA is the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) who in turn works with municipalities, sewer authorities, and other organizations to protect Pennsylvania’s air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens through a cleaner environment.
In Delaware County in the 1930s, communities were still dumping their raw sewage into local creeks. During the Great Depression the Federal Government offered to put people to work extending those local waste pipes to the Delaware River if the communities joined together to create area sewer authorities. Sewer authorities are a type of governmental unit created specifically to deal with constructing, maintaining and operating parts of sewer systems. They may be specific to a single community or cover multiple communities. Today the Delaware County Regional Water Quality Control Authority (DELCORA) operates and maintains collection systems that serve half a million people from 42 municipalities. Research they’ve carried out shows that about one third of the water that they receive in their sewer mains is in fact not sewage but clear rain and ground water. That is a waste of money and energy and risks situations where sewage could spill into the environment. If rainwater can get into the sewer system then at some point a storm will be big enough that the sewer system will not be able to handle all of that extra rain water. That extra water can cause sewer mains to overflow or could overwhelm the sewage treatment plant. In both cases the extra rain water and the sewage mixed with it are going to spill into the environment somewhere. It might be at a creek or into the Delaware River, but it could also be out of a manhole in some neighborhood or even into someone’s basement. It is a messy disgusting situation and the sewer authority is fined for any such events. So it is really important that only sewage gets into the sewer system. Rain and ground water need to be kept out. But how do you go about accomplishing that?
In 2008 DELCORA received a grant from Pennsylvania to study the problem. They assembled an advisory team of 64 professionals to help. In 2010 they produced a report titled, “Private Lateral Inflow and Infiltration Elimination Project”. The report suggested municipalities begin inspecting private sewer lateral for illegal connections and defects which allowed CLEAR water into the sewer system. This would not only save their communities the money spent treating the clear water but it would also give the system extra capacity to handle growth in the communities. Even if a reduction plan wasn’t perfect, every source of rainwater removed meant that at least it would take a bigger storm to cause raw sewage to spill onto streets or into basements.
By the way, if you read anything about this issue you will run across two industry terms again and again. These terms describe how clear water gets into the sewer system. Inflow is rain or ground water that is intentionally put into the sewer. The most common example of this would be a basement sump pump discharging into a sewer pipe instead of dumping the water outside on the grass or into a storm drainage system. The other term is infiltration. Infiltration is rain or ground water that enters the sewer system through defects. The most common example of this is a broken pipe underground that allows clear ground water to pour into the sewer system. Together these two terms are referred to as “I&I”. They are the targets of the sewer authorities who push the municipalities to act to reduce them. When a municipality creates a requirement to inspect a sewer, the driving force behind it is not whether a homeowner can flush a toilet with confidence. It is the reduction of I&I. So, a township-mandated sewer inspection will look very different than one a homeowner requests to find a problem or one that a home buyer might request to avoid hassles and expenses after they move in.
In SE Pennsylvania, only a small percentage of municipalities have enacted ordinances requiring private sewer lateral (PSL) inspections, but many others are talking about doing the same. In many other parts of the state where sewer authorities have had worse problems than SE Pennsylvania has seen, PSL inspections began years ago and their pass/fail criteria were much tougher than we’ve seen here in the SE. In the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, much attention has already been given to Pennsylvania communities within the Susquehanna River watershed. That watershed covers half of the land area of Pennsylvania. The Southeast part of the state is really playing catch-up on this issue. But it is an issue that is not going away. Makes sense?