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Corroding Sewers, Not Alaskan Oil Pipes, Are the Real Danger

By Thomas Rooney | August 15, 2006

AS BAD AS they are, the corroding Alaskan oil pipelines in the news are far from the worst in America -- though you might never know that from recent headlines, and as I found out in the media aftermath of the pipeline shutdown.

As head of a company that repairs more oil, water, and sewer pipes than any other firm, I found myself talking to print and electronic reporters from across the country who wanted to know the inside story of the Alaskan pipes. Some were just a tad disappointed when I reminded them that the pipeline was shut down because of potential problems, not actual ones. And the pipeline would probably be back in service within a few months, and crude oil prices were already headed back down.

The oil pipes received a lot of attention. But remember this: No one died. No one got sick. No pristine land was despoiled. It will cost us some money.

But only a few people are talking about the broken pipes that really hurt our environment, get people sick, cause people to die, and cost even more money than oil pipeline shutdowns.

We are talking about sewer pipes, of course. Even the worst Alaskan oil pipe is in better shape than your average city sewer pipe, including cities like Boston, where the first sewer system was installed in the 1800s and the harbor is still recovering from decades of dumped sewage. Say what you will about oil spills, but they are usually small and in remote places where damage to human life, property, and wildlife is minimal. I've seen enough of both to know this: Crude oil is much cleaner and less toxic than sewage. And oil spills are a lot less common. Yet oil gets all the ink, while sewage escapes scrutiny.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported there were 73,000 sewage spills in America. Over the last several months, more than a dozen places in this country have had the worst sewer spills in decades, if not in their history. Billions have been spent for cleanup, remediation, and healthcare costs because of these spills. The reason is sewer pipes that are old, eroded, broken, even corroded to the point of non-existence, almost 1 million miles of them in this country.

In Hawaii, earlier this year, 50 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from broken pipes onto the most beautiful beaches in the world. That damaged an entire economy, made many sick, and caused one death. If they are not watching sewer pipes in Hawaii, do you think your town is any better?

A recent UCLA and Stanford study says water polluted with sewage sickens 1.5 million people a year in Southern California alone. Detroit has the same kinds of problems, except all of its sewage discharges go into the Great Lakes, a source of drinking water for tens of millions of people.

The headlines tell the story, but no one is connecting the dots: Cities in North Carolina, Maryland, California, Texas, Louisiana, Washington, Oregon, and elsewhere are reporting the worst sewer spills ever. In Louisiana, the sewers are in worse shape than the levees, and present the greatest threat to health there. In Texas recently, a sinkhole caused by a rotting sewer pipe is the chief suspect in the disappearance of a boy reported missing after playing near the hole.

Bad sewer pipes are a problem that the country can no longer ignore. And it will get worse for two simple reasons. One, most sewer pipes were built 60 years ago, and only intended to last 50 years. Two, not enough people pay attention until they break.

A few months from now the oil will be flowing again in Alaska. The problem will be largely forgotten. Meanwhile, sewer pipes across the country are on the brink of collapse -- not in the wilds of Alaska, but right nearby. Right next to a nearby source of drinking water, a playground, a lake, or a beach.

Thomas Rooney is president and chief executive officer of Insituform Technologies, a publicly traded company.

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