York City residents can no longer wash their cars with soap — at least in areas where wet water flows directly into storm drains.
The City Council approved a set of amended ordinances on Aug. 16 that prohibit the discharge of soaps and detergents into its stormwater system — changes that were requested by the state 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 livelihood counts on water.”
Lettice Brown, the city’s stormwater manager, said areas that have sewers built to take runoff to treatment facilities — such as commercial garages and commercial car washes — can still use soaps. But she noted that the city’s storm sewers empty directly into creeks and streams, meaning anything that flows into them bypasses such treatment.
“Whole ecosystems can die if we don’t watch what we’re doing,” she said.
Residents can use soap to wash cars only if the runoff goes onto their lawns, grass patches or gravel and does not flow into the city’s storm sewers, according to a news release. Grass and gravel that don’t allow runoff act as a natural filtration system for chemicals, Brown said.
Brown admits that not everyone can have a lawn to wash their car or be able to pay for a car wash if they want to use soap. She is working on solutions to help make car wash resources more accessible and encourages residents to contact the stormwater management office if they do not have a place to wash their cars in accordance with the ordinance changes.
The ordinance aims 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. DEP requires all Pennsylvania municipalities to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. This permit governs what can and cannot enter Commonwealth waters.
Although the ordinance changes affect daily life, York City officials say they have a lot to gain from less pollution.
“The less of these pollutants that get into our storm drains that 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 on implementing the ordinance. She announced the stormwater ordinances that would be presented to the city council through newsletters and social media blasts. She also invited residents to attend pre-vote meetings to voice 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 other 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. She will go out to the scene of a reported violation and talk to residents in person and provide educational information.
“I’m not out to write tickets, that’s not my philosophy,” she said. “I always like to educate first and take it from there.”
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, she said. If pollution is not treated, local streams and the creatures that call them home will be harmed. And, perhaps more pressing for the people who must follow the ban, the cost of providing clean drinking water will increase.
— Contact Noel Miller at [email protected] or via Twitter at @TheNoelM.