Sewer Systems Still Leak
New federal investment needed for aging pipes.
By Rebecca Rothbaum
The Poughkeepsie Journal
Sewage leaks from aging systems are fouling the streams and creeks that feed
the Hudson River and threatening the health of fishermen and swimmers, as well
as the aquatic ecosystem.
Century-old pipes - some of them made of clay, or cracked and crumbling - and
decades-old sewage treatment plants and pump stations at the oldest river
settlements can allow raw sewage to overflow into the Hudson River Watershed
during heavy rains.
It's been a generation after the Clean Water Act invested federal money toward
cleaning up raw sewage and eliminating industrial discharges, dramatically
improving water quality. Advocates from the environmental and business
communities say the federal government needs to spend as much as $35 billion in
the next five years to upgrade and repair the nation's aging water and sewer
The effect of inaction is real, and likely to be felt somewhere in the Hudson
Valley during any downpour.
``In the summertime, it will stink for three to four weeks afterwards,'' said
John McCollum, a Town of Wappinger resident who fishes the Fishkill Creek in
Beacon. ``If it overflows, the stuff sits there in stagnant puddles, or seeps
into the dirt. The shady spots, it will stay moist so you're constantly smelling
it. The smell is the biggest impact on anything.''
In addition to the odor, sewage carries bacteria and viruses that can cause
illness and force beaches to close. It also injects excessive nutrients into the
ecosystem that can lead to a chain reaction, resulting in waters so depleted of
oxygen they are inhospitable to life.
``It's a public health issue,'' said David Alderisio, a New York City Department
of Environmental Protection engineer who works in the New York City watershed,
and who has alerted officials to problems in Dutchess County, where he lives.
``I've seen fishermen in streams downstream from raw sewage discharges. I've
seen children playing in streams. If they happen to ingest it - if it goes from
your hand to your mouth, you can get very, very sick,'' Alderisio said.
A study by Mid Hudson Pattern for Progress revealed a gap of $903.2 million
between money requested for low-interest loans to pay for wastewater projects in
six Hudson Valley counties and those that were funded in 2004 by the Clean Water
State Revolving Fund. Total requests exceeded $1 billion, and only 12 percent of
funding requests were granted in 2004, according to the report.
New York pays a 33 percent match to the federal money, one of the most generous
in the country, and a 1996 bond act brought $50 million to the Hudson River and
New York Harbor for water quality improvements that included some sewage system
Nationwide, the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated the cost of making
needed replacements and repairs to sewage infrastructure at between $331 billion
to $450 billion.
Water and sewer infrastructure are not only important to protect the
environment, said Michael DiTullo, executive director of Mid Hudson Pattern for
Progress. It is also critical to attracting business and planning for so-called
Businesses and homes cannot be `'clustered'' without water and sewer pipes
available. Otherwise, development would sprawl into the countryside - which
contributes to other forms of environmental degradation.
``The federal government has been behind the eight ball for the last decade or
so,'' DiTullo said.
But the realization of the nation's need comes at a time when Congress is beset
with dwindling revenues following tax cuts championed by President Bush and
escalating costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The national debt stands
at nearly $7.4 trillion, and is projected to grow.
In November, Congress approved spending about $1.1 billion on wastewater
projects, a compromise between the $850 million House proposal and the $1.35
billion Senate proposal, which would have retained the current level of funding.
Sewage pipes were laid at the turn of the 20th century in many of the oldest
Hudson Valley settlements, including the cities of Beacon, Newburgh and
Kingston, as well as many villages like Wappingers Falls. Poughkeepsie, which
has since upgraded its system significantly, was one of the first to install
sewers - just after the Civil War.
Some sewage systems, like those in Newburgh, New York City and the Albany area,
were designed to handle both storm water from streets as well as sewage, so in
rain storms, the treatment plants often overflow with raw sewage. Known as
combined sewage overflow systems, they have been an ongoing source of
contamination to the region's waters.
Gov. George Pataki's goal of making the river safe for swimming by 2009 has
focused attention and, increasingly, state money on the problem.
Now, the state does not promote swimming in two long stretches of the Hudson -
from New York harbor north to the Bear Mountain Bridge, which connects northern
Westchester and Rockland counties; and from Houghtaling Island, near the City of
Hudson, north to the dam at Troy. In reality, the Hudson River is so voluminous
that most sewage discharges are diluted, and the areas around Albany and New
York City are the only ones where swimming is likely to be unsafe, most experts
New York City faces a $2.2 billion project to upgrade its overflow system, but
it has failed to meet nearly all the milestones of a 1992 DEC agreement. It
recently agreed to finish the 30 projects that were already to have been
completed, over the next 18 years. The city has made progress, but because it
needs land to solve many problems, projects take time and have faced local
In the Albany area, the state, the cities of Albany, Watervliet, Cohoes,
Rensselaer and Troy, and the Village of Green Island have teamed up to spend as
much as $4 million to find a solution to chronic discharges of raw sewage during
storms. It isn't known what the plan, to be developed by the Capital District
Regional Planning Agency, will cost to implement.
Even on systems not designed to handle storm water, old pipes are a problem
because of something engineers call ``I and I'' - infiltration and inflow. Clay
pipes can absorb water, cracked pipes take on water, and residents
inappropriately pump flooded basements into sewage inflows - all of which leads
to overflows similar to those seen in combined sewage overflow systems.
Like many communities, Beacon has been slowly replacing old sewage pipes during
roadwork for years, and is working with a $1 million DEC grant to curb ``I and
Last month, Beacon started a multi-pronged project to stem the flow of raw
sewage into the Fishkill Creek that began with replacing two leaking manholes,
City Administrator Joe Braun said.
``As I always say, we'd have done it along time ago if it was easy,'' Braun
Beacon is one of several communities to be addressing known sewage overflow
problems. The Village of New Paltz is in line to spend $750,000 to replace
pipes, Trustee Robert Hebel said. And the U.S. Military Academy at West Point is
in the midst of a project that has already seen it replace 40 manholes and 1,500
feet of sewer line, spokeswoman Andrea Hamburger said.
The Village of Wappingers Falls could spend as much as $800,000 to replace 1,655
feet of clay pipe along Route 9 laid in 1917, said Bob Juliano, a village
trustee and vice president of the Tri-Municipal Sewage Commission. It's part of
an ongoing project to replace old pipes throughout the village.
Investing in replacing pipe ultimately saves the village taxpayers money now
spent to treat storm water, and the new pipes could last another century or
more, Juliano said.
``All the municipalities should be doing it. Not all of them do,'' said Jack
Railing, administrator of the Tri-Municipal Sewer Commission.
The ``I and I'' from the village is among the reasons the Tri-Municipal system
can overflow during heavy rains, like it did in October 2003, when a pump
station spilled as much as 250,000 gallons of sewage into the Wappinger Creek,
upstream from the Hudson River. As with most sewage overflows, the effect of
this specific spill was never studied scientifically.
Besides stopping overflows, reducing ``I and I'' frees up treatment capacity for
expansions and new development.
The commission and the Town of Wappinger are considering an $800,000 upgrade to
increase capacity to expand the sewer service to more residents.
Properly working plants remove harmful pathogens, Railing said. Treatment
appears surprisingly clean. A tour of the plant last month revealed
clean-looking water and no odors other than the earthy smell of compost - the
end product sold to area landscapers.
Sewer plants that discharge directly to the river generally utilize
`'secondary'' treatment - settling of solid waste, enhancing degradation by
natural bacteria and chlorination to kill pathogens. ``Tertiary'' treatment
plants on smaller streams add an additional step, sand filtration.
The ultimate goal is to release water that is stripped of organic material that
would otherwise starve the water of oxygen, so additional treatment is required
for smaller water bodies that dilute waste less.
``What we put out is cleaner than the Hudson River,'' Railing said.
When the sloop Clearwater, the replica of an 18th century cargo ship that
represents the Poughkeepsie-based environmental group, sailed to Washington, the
Hudson River was at the center of the national debate that got the Clean Water
Act passed in 1972.
It remains to be seen whether action on the river today will influence national
policies. Environmental groups, including Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson, have
only just begun to study the issue, representatives said.
Under the Clean Water Act, Congress set the goals of making all waters safe for
wildlife and human recreation by 1983, and eliminating all discharges of
pollution into water by 1985.
Even though those goals were not met, the waters are far cleaner than during the
days when the Hudson was a cesspool of garbage, sewage and industrial waste.
McCollum catches trout and bass in the Fishkill Creek, not far from its mouth at
the Hudson. Years ago, he didn't see herring spawn in such numbers, nor the
great blue heron that now nest nearby.
Still, two decades after that Clean Water Act deadline was missed, sewage
remains a problem in the Hudson Valley and around the nation.
And new issues are emerging. Scientists have begun to identify minute quantities
of many compounds in the waste stream - from caffeine to pharmaceuticals - many
of which are filtered neither by sewage treatment nor drinking water plants.
Some studies suggest some of these compounds could mimic estrogen and could be
affecting the sexuality of fish and amphibians, but the effect on the
environment and human health is still unknown. The U.S. Geological Survey is in
the midst of a nationwide study that aims to show if the compounds already
documented in streams and groundwater are also present in drinking water
``The first question is: Is that a problem?'' said Railing, the sewage plant
administrator. ``If it is a problem, guess what? They're going to make us do
something about it.''
Even independent of any new regulations, the nation's sewage infrastructure
needs expensive work.
The Water Infrastructure Network, a group that represents many local
governments, engineers and water and sewer plant operators, is considering
supporting a National Trust Fund for Clean Water, that would dedicate about $7
billion per year for five years to drinking water and sewage infrastructure.
``When you look at what clean water and drinking water mean to this country, to
its health, environmental health and especially its economic health,'' network
Executive Director Lee Garrigan said, ``it's something that's got to be