Sunday, June 10, 2001
HEADLINE: Plugging the drain State's cities, towns face costly task of
stopping sewage overflows
Robert J. Byers
Several decades ago, city streets turned into ponds
after every hard rain. Pressed for an answer to soggy shoes and stalled
motorcars, early engineers responded with storm drains, tying them
directly into the existing sewers.
Today, there's a whole bunch of people who wish they hadn't done that.
What seemed like a good idea at the time is resulting in a
billion-dollar headache for cities and towns across West Virginia and
across the country.
"What was acceptable then is no longer acceptable," said Jim Downey,
Charleston Sanitary Board operations manager. "We're paying for the
mistakes of the past."
Huge volumes of stormwater running through sanitary sewers, which are
busy carrying the city's sewage, results in overflows. And it's not just
stormwater that's overflowing into creeks and rivers.
When raw sewage is mixed with creeks and rivers, it always piques the
interest of the Environmental Protection Agency, as it did in 1994, when
the federal agency decided enough was enough and issued its control
policy for CSOs, or combined sewer overflows.
Because of the massive cost involved, the policy was very flexible,
enough so that seven years later, most of the 1,000 CSO communities
nationwide are still taking baby steps toward compliance.
But the time is growing short and cities such as Charleston are
preparing to jump in with both feet ... and it could get messy.
And the bill will be paid by ...
"We figure we could do about four or five million dollars' worth of work
a year," Downey said. "Or else Charleston would look like a war zone."
Typical sewage treatment plants can't handle the huge slug of water
created by a heavy rainfall, which leads to the overflow, said
Charleston Sanitary Board Director Kathy Darr. Also, stormwater, which
is filled with grit and grease from the streets, is not all that healthy
for the treatment system.
Remedies to CSOs basically come down to two options: storing and slowly
treating the combined sewage and stormwater; or separating the pipes.
Either option is costly and invasive.
For the 56 West Virginia communities affected, there are few certainties
- except one. Sewer bills will continue to rise as the CSO problem is
"From what we've heard, the federal grants just aren't going to be there
or be enough," Darr said. "Just low-interest loans."
Recent estimates in Wheeling predict as much as $15,000 per sewer
customer to fix that city's CSO problem. This would be paid over the
course of many years as the city borrows the money for construction.
The customer isn't exactly innocent in this mess. While the cost to fix
the problem may be borne on their backs, some of the blame begins on
their rooftops. Many houses in Charleston, particularly the city's hilly
neighborhoods, have gutter systems that feed directly into the sewers,
Darr said. This keeps rainwater from your roof from running in your
neighbor's back door, but it also adds to the CSO dilemma.
Whether it would be necessary or who would pay the cost (estimates have
climbed as high as $5,000 per house) to solve the rooftop problem is
anybody's guess, Darr said.
That sinking feeling
On a typical December day in Huntington last year, as Christmas shoppers
started getting down to crunch time, a massive sinkhole - 30 feet deep,
60 feet wide - suddenly split Hal Greer Boulevard.
A brick-lined manhole shifted from its connection with one of the city's
main sewer lines (also made of brick ... 105 years ago), which started
sucking in sand and soil until it totally undermined the street.
"That was a pretty scary sight when it first opened," said Woody Bare,
who recently took over as director of Huntington's Sanitary Board.
It wasn't the first time a sinkhole has opened in the city. Another
formed in 1998, and in 1996, an 88-year-old woman and her car dropped
into a 10-foot-deep hole that opened in an alley.
Charleston and other West Virginia cities have had similar problems.
Some are caused by old, leaky waterlines; others by old, leaky sewer
While municipalities are busy addressing CSO concerns, they are also
facing up to another reality: These old, out-of-date combined sewer
lines are ... well, old.
In the late 1800s, when Charles
¥tonians wanted an easier way to dump
all their waste in the Kanawha River, they built a state-of-the-art,
double-walled brick sewer line along what is believed to have been a
stream bed running from present day Leon Sullivan Way to the Virginia
Street Bridge over the Elk River.
It handled all the sewage generated in downtown Charleston. Still does.
"If it goes, we've got big trouble," Darr said.
The line runs beneath structures such as Huntington Bank's new parking
garage, the new office building at the corner of Summers and Quarrier
streets, the former Embee's department store building on Capitol Street
and the garage for the Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love law firm.
When a developer wants to build atop the main line, they sign an
agreement that frees the Sanitary Board of any liability in case the
line would fail or collapse, Downey said. It also gives the board
permission to excavate the building's first floor for repair work.
Brick, clay ... cardboard?
The majority of the capital city's 600 miles of sewer lines are made of
clay, often terra cotta. This was the preferred method until the 1970s,
when PVC (polyvinyl chloride) pipe was introduced, Downey said.
"But, even including today's materials, 40 or 50 years is the life span
of most sewer lines," he said.
By beginning the CSO process, Charleston is also assessing the state of
its sewer system. In some cases, the Sanitary Board doesn't even know
where some of its lines are. Some were built before certain areas were
annexed into the city, Darr explained. And some were built of leftover
Well, it happened once, anyway. A favorite story at the board offices is
about a subdivision off Oakridge Drive that was annexed into the city
soon after it was developed. The sewer lines were failing. When they
were uncovered, workers found cardboard tubes subbing as sewer pipes.
Cardboard and all, a Sanitary Board surveyor and assistant are currently
locating and mapping the Charleston sewer system.
They've been on the job for about five months and with the conventional
equipment they're using, it will take another three years. Because of
the time involved, Darr is looking into investing in a GPS system, which
uses satellite mapping.
"That would cut the time to a year," she said.
Meanwhile, a Sanitary Board crew is inserting a probe with a camera eye
into the sewers to see where the problems are. This will help with
future CSO work, and will also provide for better routine maintenance.
As part of the CSO guidelines issued by the EPA, the Sanitary Board is
contracting a study of water quality to learn just what the sewage
overflows are doing to the Elk and Kanawha rivers.
The study started in February and is expected to take a year, Darr said.
"You have to get into compliance unless the study shows the overflows
are not affecting water quality," Downey said. "And with water running
through the same lines, there's little chance [the study] would be
'I know something's coming'
Recent studies, including a new report from the Water Infrastructure
Network, call on Congress to increase funding for America's cities and
towns facing water and sewer crises.
"Local governments and their ratepayers currently cover 90 percent of
the costs to build, operate and maintain public water and sewer
systems," the report states. "But, as older systems deteriorate and
water quality rules tighten, local budgets simply cannot keep pace."
The CSO Partnership, a national coalition of CSO community
representatives, formed in 1989 as a way for cities to collectively
address the coming storm. The partnership advocates cost-effective
solutions for CSOs. It also asks that policies be more site-specific.
Bare, the Huntington sewer director, couldn't agree more.
"Our system's functioned fairly well all these years. It needs to be
looked at separately," Bare said.
"I don't want to presuppose my options until I get a good handle on what
we have here. I don't want to just jump and say give me 300 million or a
billion dollars and I'll fix it."
Huntington has 250 miles of combined sewers and 30 miles of storm
"Three hundred million is the price tag for separating the lines that
was thrown around at one time," he said. "But we might not necessarily
want to the separate the whole thing. You could pipe it to a big holding
pond near the site, then run it as you can into the treatment center."
Huntington's Sanitary Board is doing an internal study of water quality
in regard to overflows.
While Bare, like most sewer directors across the nation, doesn't know
what the exact answer is for his city, he knows the problem can't be
"I know something's coming. I'm just trying to prepare the city of
Huntington so when it does we can address it as cost-effective a manner
To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or