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.