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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 systems.

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 work.

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 ``smart growth.''

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 agree.

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 opposition.

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 I.''

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 said.

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 supplies.

``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 funded.''



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