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Trouble in the Pipes: Aging Sewers Threaten Environment, Public Health

Despite penalties, sewer systems still fouling rivers, streams
BY LARRY WHEELER AND GRANT SMITH GANNETT NEWS SERVICE JUNE 23, 2008

America's sewers are showing their age.

Deteriorating pipes, overwhelmed by volumes of water they were never designed to carry, release billions of gallons of raw sewage into rivers and streams each year. The spills make people sick, threaten local drinking water and kill aquatic animals and plants.
Hundreds of municipal sewer authorities have been fined for spills since 2003, according to a Gannett News Service analysis of EPA data.

And dozens of local governments have agreed to spend billions modernizing failing wastewater systems over the next 10 to 20 years. Many of those projects will be financed by rate increases.

But the improvements can't keep up with problems affecting the thousands of miles of sewer pipes snaking underground through each community. Foul-smelling waste gurgles from manholes and gushes down streams and rivers somewhere in the U.S. almost every day.

In March, between 700,000 and 1.3 million gallons of human feces and other waste spilled from a damaged pipe into Grand Lagoon at Panama City Beach, Fla.

In January, about 20 million gallons of sewage flowed into Pennsylvania's Schuylkill River after a 42-inch pipe ruptured near Reading, Pa.

That same month, heavy rain, deteriorating pipes and operator error combined to send about 5 million gallons of sewage into Northern California's Richardson and San Francisco bays.

"When people flush their toilets, they think the sewage is going to the treatment plant, and that's where they deserve to have it go," said Nancy Stoner, a project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which says the government isn't doing enough to police sewage overflows.

GNS analyzed enforcement and compliance records compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency and some state regulators between January 2003 and February this year. The analysis found:

- At least one-third of the nation's large, publicly owned sewage treatment systems have been penalized by the EPA or state regulators for sewage spills or other violations. The penalties included fines and orders to fix problems or expand treatment capacity.

That doesn't mean other sewer systems are problem-free. Federal and state environmental officials say they target sewer systems with ongoing overflows that come to regulators' attention through routine inspections, complaints or large spills that generate headlines.

- Total fines amounted to $35 million. The fines were assessed against 494 of the nation's 4,200 municipal facilities that treat at least 1 million gallons of sewage daily. In addition, some states have levied penalties that aren't included in the data.

- Cities with the largest fines included San Diego ($6.2 million), New York ($3 million), Los Angeles ($1.6 million) and Pittsburgh ($1.2 million).
"The word is out," said Mark Pollins, the EPA's director of Water Enforcement. "Enforcement is alive and well."

EPA officials estimate 850 billion gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage pour into U.S. waters every year from systems, some built in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that are designed to overflow in wet weather.

An additional 3 billion to 10 billion gallons of raw sewage spill accidentally every year from systems designed to carry only sewage, according to the EPA. Those spills are caused by numerous factors, including improper connections, clogs caused by debris, construction accidents and cracks in aging pipes.

As many as 5,500 people get sick every year from direct exposure to pollutants discharged from sewer overflows near beaches, the EPA estimates.

Sewage also can get into drinking water. In one 1993 case in Milwaukee, more than 400,000 people got sick and more than 100 died after the cryptosporidium parasite contaminated drinking water taken from Lake Michigan. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggested untreated sewage in the lake could have been the culprit.

EPA officials say water quality has gotten better in many communities that have improved their sewer systems.

Elsewhere, regulators and lawsuits filed by citizens have pressured local governments into agreeing to costly, complex modernization projects that in some cases will take more than a generation to complete.

Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, for example, has agreed to eliminate dozens of "outfalls" that discharge sewage mixed with storm water directly into rivers and streams. The project could cost about $3 billion over the next 20 years.

"We're not alone," Arletta Scott Williams, executive director at Pittsburgh's wastewater treatment plant on the Ohio River, told homeowners attending a town hall meeting last fall. "It is nationwide. There's nowhere near enough money, and there's no pot where it's going to come from."

Ratepayers certainly will be asked to help foot much of the bill.

In Louisville, Ky., residential sewer rates jumped 30 percent last year to help finance an $800 million sewer renovation program that won't be completed until 2024.

"We don't have any recourse," Louisville resident Roseanne Southard said as officials prepared to approve the increase. "These agencies all want more money, and I'm not making any more."

The nation's public wastewater treatment plants and sewage collection systems need about $350 billion to $500 billion over the next 20 years for repairs and expansion, according to estimates from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The trade group based the estimates on figures from the EPA and other federal agencies.

This year, the federal government has budgeted $687 million for wastewater improvement, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
One modernization project alone, in Indianapolis, could cost $1.2 billion. Residents hope the repairs will end years of smelly and unsightly problems along Fall Creek.

"I have walked this area on numerous occasions and could see condoms decorating bushes where the water level had been high (and), feminine hygiene products along the shores, toilet paper hanging in bushes," said Richard Van Frank, a local environmental activist and retired biochemist.

Legislation that would require sewer authorities to notify the public of overflows and spills is pending in Congress.

One environmental group, American Rivers, uses humor and a "Spill of the Week" Web blog to encourage support for a nationwide public notification law.

"We try to be a little snarky about this," said Josh Klein, a campaign coordinator for American Rivers. "After all, we're talking about poop. But it is a serious issue."
Overflows cost sewer systems $35 million in fines over five years
Gannett News Service analyzed federal data on fines and other enforcement actions related to sewage overflows from municipal sewer systems. The data is from the Environmental Protection Agency and covers from January 2003 to February 2008.

The analysis found:

- At least one-third of the nation's large, publicly owned sewage treatment systems have been penalized by the EPA or state regulators for sewage spills or other violations. The penalties included fines as well as orders to fix problems or expand treatment capacity.

That doesn't mean other sewer systems are problem-free. Federal and state environmental officials say they target systems with ongoing overflows that come to regulators' attention through routine inspections, complaints or large spills that generate headlines.

- Total fines amounted to $35 million. The fines were assessed against 494 of the nation's 4,200 municipal facilities that treat at least 1 million gallons of sewage daily. In addition, some states have levied penalties that aren't included in the data.

- Cities with the largest fines included San Diego ($6.2 million), New York City ($3 million), Los Angeles ($1.6 million), and Pittsburgh ($1.2 million).

- States where sewer systems paid the largest amounts in fines, both federal and state, were: California ($7.8 million), Tennessee ($3.4 million), New York ($3 million), Kentucky ($2.9 million), Maryland ($2 million), Florida ($1.5 million), Pennsylvania ($1.4 million), Indiana ($1.4 million), North Carolina ($1.2 million), and Oklahoma ($1.1 million).

- The EPA records show no fines were levied against sewer systems in Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Oregon, Maine, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia or Wyoming.

- The records showed no enforcement action of any kind for sewer systems in four states -- North Dakota, Nevada, Washington and Wisconsin.

 
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