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Aging Sewage Pipes Pollute Nation

By Nancy Trahan
San Gabriel Valley Tribune

IT'S the pipes, stupid!

The UCLA and Stanford professors got part of it right: Many of the more popular beaches in Southern California are polluted with sewage as often as one out of every three days.

Much of it from storm drains full of untreated runoff.

But missing from their analysis is another major source of coastal sewage pollution - the sewer pipes.

They are bursting all over California and the rest of the country as well. Every major local government in Southern California is under some kind of state or federal mandate to fix their aging, bursting sewer pipes. The city of Los Angeles agreed in 2004 to spend $2billion to upgrade one of the leakiest sewer systems in America, averaging one spill a day for decades. Same with San Diego and Orange County. You name the city or county, and chances are the public officials most vociferous about the environment are often the ones most inattentive to the worst source of pollution in their waters: sewage.

It is a national problem. Over the last two years, dozens of places throughout America have had their worse sewage spill in decades, if not ever.

Just a few months ago it was Waikiki, Hawaii. Last month it was Spokane, Wash. Before that it was Annapolis, Md.; Raleigh, N.C.; Boston; Key West, Fla.; Wilmington, Del.; Durham, N.C.; and on and on.

Last year there were 73,000 sewer spills in America, many caused by the same thing: It's the pipes, stupid!

Major sewer spills are now so common that local officials often treat them with a kind of seasonal resignation, as if to say, "If it's summer, it must be time for sewage."

Yet let some hapless boater drop a quart of oil in the water by accident, and these same officials are threatening him with jail time for being an environmental outlaw.

That just isn't going to work anymore, because the sewer pipe problem is getting worse. Most of the sewage pipes in America were installed 60 years ago in the great post-war building boom. They were meant to last for 50 years. Do the math. Read the clips. Sewer pipes are breaking at an unprecedented rate.

Just a few days ago, the biggest news story in Dallas was about the search for a little boy who disappeared and may have fallen into a large sinkhole above a sewer pipe.

They are still looking for him. But we get the same holes and few seem to know where they come from.

Every couple of weeks, the local and national news carry stories on sinkholes - much like the one in Dallas - that mysteriously appear, seemingly at random, swallowing cars, sidewalks and even homes.

Only these sinkholes are not random: It's the pipes, stupid!

Here's why: When sewer pipes corrode, dirt falls in. Soon it is whisked away, much like an underground escalator. Whether it is one grain a day, or several teaspoons a day, soon enough, the ground near the pipe - but below the surface - is gone.

The next time it rains, voila, instant sinkhole, instant pipe break. And we are often told the sinkhole caused the pipe break and sewage spill instead of the other way around.

Mystery solved.

The only question left is why we let so much of our sewage infrastructure rot away when we know people will get sick by the tens of thousands, when we know that sooner or later we will have to fix them, as the EPA demands.

Some places figured it out. San Diego, for example, had some of the leakiest sewer systems and sickest surfers in America.

With EPA sanctions looming, the city hired a company out of St. Louis that fixes sewer pipes from the inside - removing a favorite excuse for inaction, the disruption of traffic.

This same company did the same thing beneath the White House. And, yes, when they are fixing pipes they do find alligators down there in the sewers.

Pretty soon, the leaks were almost gone. The surfers were happy. But there are still a lot of pipes left to fix.

With apologies to Al Gore, broken sewer pipes are the most immediate and damaging threat to our environment - not rising temperatures at the North Pole. It's sewage on our beaches from leaky pipes. Right here in California. Right now.

Nancy Trahan is a freelance writer.

She lives in Winchester.

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