York City residents can no longer wash their cars with soap, at least in areas where black water runs directly into storm drains.
The City Council approved a series of amended ordinances on Aug. 16 that prohibit the discharge of soaps and detergents into its stormwater system, changes required by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“We all have to live together and live in our environment. As our effects on the environment emerge, we have to change,” said York City Mayor Michael Helfrich. “Our livelihoods rely on water.”
Lettice Brown, the city’s stormwater manager, said areas that have drains built to take runoff to treatment facilities, such as commercial garages and commercial car washes, can still use soaps. But he noted that the city’s storm sewers empty directly into streams and creeks, meaning anything that flows into them goes through that treatment.
“Whole ecosystems can die if we don’t look at what we’re doing,” he said.
According to a news release, residents can only use soap to wash cars if the runoff goes onto lawns, grass clippings or gravel and does not flow into city stormwater drains. Grass and gravel that don’t allow runoff act as a natural filtration system for chemicals, Brown said.
Brown acknowledges that not everyone can have a lawn to wash their car on or can afford a car wash if they want to use soap. He’s working on solutions to help make car wash resources more accessible and encourages residents to contact the stormwater management office if they don’t have a place to wash their cars. with the amendments to the ordinance.
The ordinance is intended to reduce pollution in streams and creeks, and York City has one of the highest rates of runoff pollution in the county, Brown said.
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Despite the seemingly sudden announcement, this ordinance has been in the works at the state level for several years. The DEP requires all municipalities in Pennsylvania to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. This permit regulates what can and cannot enter commonwealth waters.
While the ordinance amendments affect everyday life, York City officials say they have a lot to gain from less pollution.
“The less pollutants that go into our storm drains, which lead into one of our creeks and streams, which then lead into the Codorus, the Susquehanna and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, the better,” Brown said.
Brown, the only employee in York City’s stormwater management office, said the city tried to get the word out in the months leading up to the vote to implement the ordinance. He announced the stormwater ordinances coming to city council through newsletters and social media blasts. He also invited residents to attend meetings before the vote to voice their concerns and ask questions.
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Two stormwater ordinances were amended at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting, according to the city’s website. To enforce these ordinances, Brown relies on a public tip line and city employees to report violations they see.
When it comes to enforcement, Brown prefers to educate residents first and use citations as a last resort. He will go to the site of the reported violation and personally speak with residents and distribute educational information.
“I’m not about writing tickets, that’s not my philosophy,” he said. “I always like to educate first and take it from there.”
The citations, Brown said, will be the last step in cases where a resident refuses to follow city ordinances.
Water entering storm drains should be as clean as possible, he said. If pollution is not addressed, local streams and the creatures that call them home will be harmed. And, perhaps more pressingly for the humans who must follow the ban, it will increase the cost of drinking water supplies.
— Contact Noel Miller at [email protected] or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.