Feds Give Harrisburg PA a Deadline for Solution to Chronic Sewage Overflows

With Unsafe Fecal Bacteria Levels in Susquehanna River, EPA Consent Decree Mandates Effective Control Plan by 2024

For a copy of the consent decree, click here.

For copy of new report, “Stopping Sewage Overflows in Harrisburg,” click here.

Harrisburg, Pa. – With Pennsylvania’s capital releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage and stormwater into the Susquehanna River every year, EPA and the state today filed a consent decree in federal court that will require Capital Region Water to create an effective long-term control plan by Dec. 31, 2024, to reduce sewage overflows.

Harrisburg has a more than century-old combined sewage and stormwater system that overflows more than once a week, on average, into the Chesapeake Bay’s biggest tributary.  Monitoring for fecal bacteria monitoring along the Harrisburg waterfront this summer found that 56 percent of samples had levels of E. coli that would be unsafe for swimming or water-contact recreation.

EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2015 sued Harrisburg and Capital Region Water over the chronic overflows, but the water authority failed to make any progress in fixing the problem. That prompted a legal intervention by the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Environmental Integrity Project in 2021, and then today, EPA and DEP issuing a new deadline, backed with threats of penalties.

“Given Harrisburg’s long history of failing to address this obvious public health hazard, it is critical that EPA and DEP hold Capital Region Water strictly accountable for compliance with the modified consent decree’s deadlines and terms,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “Pennsylvania must step up and help Capital Region Water with funding to end these sewage overflows and avoid future delays.  No more extensions or modifications can be given, and any violation of the deadlines must trigger the immediate application of penalties.”

Potential penalties in the modified consent decree filed in court today range up to $3,000 per day, depending on the violation.  The modified consent decree gives Capital Region Water a deadline of December 31, 2024, to submit to EPA for the agency’s approval a revised and updated long-term control plan for controlling overflows that conforms to the EPA’s requirements for combined sewage and stormwater systems.

“This is an opportunity for Harrisburg to come up with a real solution to the sewage overflow crisis in the state capital through long-needed infrastructure improvements,” said Jen Duggan, Deputy Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “Cities across the U.S. with antiquated sewage systems have solved this problem, and Harrisburg can, too.”

The Environmental Integrity Project and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper released a new report today, “Stopping Sewage Overflows in Harrisburg,” that provides specific examples of cities large and small, poor and wealthy, across the U.S. that have solved similar combined sewage overflow problems over the last two decades.

For example, Saginaw, Michigan, a city of 44,000 people – smaller than Harrisburg, and with a higher poverty rate – built a $110 million series of underground retention basins during the 1990s that temporarily hold sewage mixed with stormwater during rainstorms, until the wastewater can be treated.

Another example is Bremerton, Washington, which halted its sewage and stormwater overflow problem by investing $50 million building separate sewer lines and pumping stations. Boston and Portland are also featured in the report as cities that have successfully tackled the same combined sewage overflow problems as Harrisburg.   For a copy of the report, click here.

For the last four summers, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper has been monitoring fecal bacteria levels along the Harrisburg waterfront, including near outfalls leading from the State Capitol Complex and Governor’s Residence.

The Riverkeeper found that, this summer, 40 percent of 20 samples taken just downstream from the outfall near the Governor’s Residence had unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria. Seventy percent of the 20 samples taken near the outfall near the State Capitol Complex had levels of fecal bacteria that would be unhealthy for swimming or water contact recreation.

Overflows from Harrisburg’s outfalls average about 800 million gallons of sewage and stormwater a year.  They totaled 1.1 billion gallons in 2021, 584 million gallons in 2020, 900 million gallons in 2019, 1.4 billion gallons in 2018, 899 million gallons in 2017, and 789 million gallons in 2016, according to reports from Capital Region Water.

The full results of the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper’s 2022 bacteria monitoring are below:

Summer 2022 Bacteria Monitoring in Susquehanna River at Harrisburg


Monitoring Site Average (geometric mean) of E. coli  (CFU)*


Number and % above the swimming standard average (126 CFU) Number and %  above the ‘not to exceed’ swimming standard (410 CFU)
1.     Upstream of Harrisburg north of I-81 66 5 of 20 (25%) 4 of 20 (20%)
2.     Governor’s Residence 154 8 of 20 (40%) 6 of 20 (30%)
3.     End of State Street near Capitol 348 14 of 20 (70%) 11 of 20 (55%)
4.     City Island Beach 337 15 of 20 (75%) 9 of 20 (45%)
5.     Wormleysburg at Market St. Bridge 227 12 of 20 (60%) 7 of 20 (35%)
6.     Dock Street Dam 86 8 of 20 (40%) 5 of 20 (25%)
7.     Steelton Boat Launch 134 7 of 20 (35%) 6 of 20 (30%)
8.     Paxton Creek at HACC 449 16 of 20 (80%) 9 of 20 (45%)
9.     Paxton Creek at Shanois St. 1047 19 of 20 (95%) 17 of 20 (85%)
10.  Paxton Creek at Walnut St. 743 18 of 20 (90%) 16 of 20 (80%)
Susquehanna River Average, Harrisburg** 198 45 of 80 (56%) 31 of 80 (39%)
Paxton Creek Average, Harrisburg*** 882 37 of 40 (93%) 33 of 40 (83%)
E. coli levels expressed as the number of colony forming units (CFU) per 100 ml of water. Pennsylvania uses two standards for swimming and water contact recreation in summer months: The maximum E. coli level shall have a geometric mean of less than  126 CFU/100 ml.  And no more than 10% of the total samples taken during a 30-day period may exceed 410 per 100 ml * E. coli was analyzed up to 2,419.6 CFU by ALS Environmental. Six sampling days in June and 5 sampling days in July included samples which were ≥ 2,419.6, which underrepresents the geo mean. ** Excludes control sites #1, 5 and 7. *** Excludes control site #8


Media contacts:  Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, (609) 571-5278 or lowsusriver@hotmail.com

Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project, (443) 510-2574 or tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org