CHICAGO, Sept. 2, 2004 LAWFUEL – Best for law, law news, legal news, attorneys, legal research — Two environmental groups can press
forward with a lawsuit to halt the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s
raw sewage discharges into Lake Michigan after the case was upheld today in
the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago.
The ruling reverses a lower court decision in Milwaukee. The lower court
ruling concluded last year that the state of Wisconsin was diligently
prosecuting sewage overflows from Milwaukee. The higher court today found the
state’s prosecution to be questionable, at best.
“This ruling underscores the power that the Clean Water Act gave to
citizens in Milwaukee and elsewhere,” said Lynn Broaddus, executive director
of Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, one of the groups that filed the suit. “We
have the right and responsibility to insist on the end to sewage dumping and
compliance with environmental laws.”
The court’s ruling means that the Lake Michigan Federation and Friends of
Milwaukee’s Rivers can proceed to argue that MMSD’s efforts do not comply with
the Clean Water Act and that Milwaukee’s raw industrial and domestic waste
into Lake Michigan and Milwaukee’s rivers, since 1995, will continue. In
their lawsuit, the two non-profit groups call for a phase-out of such
discharges, saying they put recreation, drinking water and the region’s
quality of life at risk. The groups also call for penalties that can be
directed to community projects that discourage further waste dumping by MMSD.
“Today is a victory for citizens’ rights to protect clean water,” said
Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation. “It means
that states can’t file ‘placeholder’ lawsuits and force citizens out of the
debate about the need to stop sewage overflows. When untreated sewage flows
into the lake, it is a regional and national problem.”
The two organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court on March 15, 2002,
charging that MMSD had violated the Clean Water Act by discharging about 1
billion gallons of raw industrial and domestic waste to area waterways.
The organizations focused their citizens’ suit on MMSD’s sanitary sewage
overflows in the years following the completion of Milwaukee’s deep tunnel.
The nearly $3 billion deep tunnel project was designed to virtually eliminate
sanitary sewer overflows, yet during the period in question approximately 1
billion gallons of raw domestic and industrial sewage was dumped into area
waters. Though not included in the lawsuit, approximately 600,000 gallons of
untreated sewage was dumped in 2002, and nearly a half billion gallons have
been dumped to date in 2004. Based on a report released earlier this year,
overflows may be underestimated by as much as 30 percent.
Sanitary sewer overflows are not permitted by the state except in the most
extreme situations. The groups’ lawsuit does not address the issue of combined
sewer overflows, which led to another 4.1 billion gallons of sewage dumped
this spring alone, or the practice of “blending,” the release of partially
treated effluent directly into Lake Michigan.
The Lake Michigan Federation and Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers are
represented by Karen M. Schapiro of DeWitt Ross & Stevens, S.C. (262) 754-
2851, online at http://www.dewittross.com and by James A. Vroman, Barry
Levenstam, and Steven M. Siros of Jenner & Block in Chicago, online at