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Morning Feature – “Oh Crap!” or Aging Sewers

January 9, 2013

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – “Oh Crap!” or Aging Sewers

Most of us flush the toilet confident in the idea that our waste will be flushed away and not cause any problems. Aging sewer infrastructure is putting our assumptions and our health at risk. (More)

The phrase “out of sight out of mind” applies to our aging sewer infrastructure. Most of us in cities walk over the buried water and sewer infrastructure on a daily basis. Since sewers became commonplace in the US around the turn of the century many of these miles of pipes were installed over 100 years ago. Many of them have also not been maintained in any kind of systematic way.

Modern sewage systems began to appear in the 19th century, when existing storm sewers were enlarged to carry wastes to nearby waterways. Municipal sewage treatment was slowly adopted in the 20th century. The growing size of cities and the pollution caused by untreated sewage forced the passage of legislation that set quality standards for treated sewage and funded sewage treatment facilities.

The Problem:

This video from Penn State Public Broadcasting provides a nice overview:

Individual households would certainly notice if they flushed and nothing happened.


On a city wide level, untreated waste would also create a big problem.

It’s vitally important to a community to have a sewage system. If waste is not promptly carried away, a community can become infected by disease. Disposing of untreated or inadequately treated waste into waterways or the soil can create serious pollution. Disease-causing organisms can infect drinking water, and toxic chemicals can poison the water and kill wildlife. Some of the nutrients in sewage can cause certain aquatic plant life to grow excessively. Decomposing wastes can deplete waterways of oxygen, making them unfit for many species of aquatic life.

Some recent headlines:

Aging systems releasing sewage into rivers, streams

Local governments across the USA plan to spend billions modernizing failing wastewater systems — some of which are more than 100 years old — over the next 10 to 20 years, EPA, state and local sewer authority officials said.

Those improvement efforts face a huge challenge mitigating problems in what the EPA estimates to be 1.2 million miles of sewers snaking underground across the USA.

Aging sewer lines could create disruptions across U.S.

And just like roads and bridges, the vast majority of the country’s water systems are in urgent need of repair and replacement. At a recent Senate hearing, it was estimated that, on average, 25 percent of drinking water leaks from water system pipes before reaching the faucet. The same committee was told it will take $335 billion to resurrect water systems and $300 billion to fix sewer systems.

Aging municipal water, sewer systems at risk

The EPA’s 2008 report claimed New York’s needs totaled $35.4 billion, an increase of 22 percent from the 2004 report. The agency is currently collecting data for the 2012 report.

Middletown Commissioner of Public Works Jacob Tawil said cities big and small across the country face the same challenge: Major infrastructure costs money local governments don’t have.

“Nobody can afford it. Not us, not Chicago, not New York City, not Poughkeepsie,” Tawil said.

The only solution, other than hoping for federal or state grants, is to prioritize projects and plan them strategically within a limited budget, Tawil said.

Aging sewer system under stress

Many of the country’s 16,000 wastewater treatment systems are in poor condition because governments have not invested enough in maintenance and upgrades, according to a 2009 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Sewer spills caused by blocked or broken pipes release up to 10 billion gallons of sewage each year across the country, the report said.

Crumbling Pipes and Underground Waste: A Glimpse at Our Ailing Sewer System

Politicians don’t win elections by promising new sewers. And the $800 billion in federal stimulus money doled out starting back in 2009 offered lots of money for bridges and roads, but only $5 billion, or one half of 1 percent, to the pipes that lie beneath.

The threat to Public Health:

Obviously the smell of raw sewage floating down the middle of the street would be a bad thing. Other than that imagine a home flooded with raw sewage.

If allowed to remain in walls and between floorboards, raw sewage can breed diseases like salmonella, hepatitis A and giardia, said Vince Radke, a sanitarian at the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. He said contaminated items, including drywall and insulation, as well as furniture, should be thrown out.

In Raritan Bay, the Hudson River and the waters around the Bay Park plant, the Environmental Protection Agency has detected dangerous levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria associated with human waste, and has urged people to avoid contact with the water. Bans on shellfish have been imposed in some regions.

The EPA adds a long list of diseases related to exposure to untreated sewage:

typhoid, tuberculosis, dysentery, cholera, tetanus, hepatitis,and several types of gastroenteritis. The problem is compounded by the use of antibiotic resistant superbugs “that can cause infections such as SARS which can be transmitted through sewage.

Oh Crap, What Now

Out of sight, out of mind does not mean there is no problem. It may not take a super storm to expose your local problems. A good heavy rain may be all that is required. Not pooping is not an option either. So inform yourself about your local treatment plant. Use Google and see if any of the thousands of headlines belong to you. Find out what the maintenance and upgrading plans are for your area. Don’t assume that because you live in a new development that you are free of any problems.

Ask questions at city council meetings and town halls. Maybe we could get a few politicians to “run on sewers” and run on adding both stimulus dollars and the required jobs to future funding bills. Write to your Senators and Representative, armed with your local facts, and ask for the funding and jobs to rebuild your sewage treatment facility and the miles of poop moving pipe.

Talk with friends, family members and coworkers. There is no excuse for saying, “We had no idea.” We do have an idea and what we need is a plan. This isn’t glamorous as topics go but it is important.

  • NCrissieB

    Thank you for this, addisnana. Because this is such an important public health topic, and because BPI is a family-friendly forum, I’ll shelve my temptation for sophomoric humor.

    Many cities desperately need to upgrade aging infrastructure, including sewers. We take the health benefits of modern sanitation for granted, but if our sewers continue to decay because we refuse to collect taxes and spend the money to fix them … we’ll all be in deep doo-doo.

    Okay, so I couldn’t shelve it entirely. 😉

    Good morning! ::hugggggs::

    • addisnana

      Those bits of sophomoric humor just write themselves. I let go of the bumper sticker of sh!* happens but what happens to our sh!*…..

      Paying attention to our water and sewer infrastructure would be a huge jobs creator. It can’t be outsourced.

  • winterbanyan

    Thanks for drawing our attention to something that is extremely important. And you’re right, it’s something we never think about. Out of sight, out of mind.

    Until something happens. We had a sewer rupture in a town near us that destroyed homes. The toxicity of the sludge was such that a major evacuation ensued, and some homes couldn’t be salvaged at all.

    The program “America’s Engineer” attempted to address these problems just last year, taking us underground to look at aging sewer infrastructure, showing us the results when something breaks. (Bridges were also looked at, but right now we’re discussing sewers.) It was appalling.

    One doesn’t have to look back in history very far to see the disease that riddled New York City until sewer systems began to be installed. It was a massive undertaking, but made the city livable. Now imagine if that gives out in any significant way.

    We need to pay attention to what we can’t see before we not only see it, but smell it and have to be evacuated.

    • addisnana

      Those things we take for granted but haven’t maintained due to tight budgets or other priorities are the things that will bite us. We don’t want to be like Haiti with its cholera epidemic. One of the differences between first world and third world status, terms I don’t really like, is that the first world nations have clean water and sanitation provided.

  • Jim W

    This is a local problem in DC. Here is an article from last September.

    • addisnana

      From the linked article:

      Mark Mueller of D.C. adds, “There is a natural flow through here, but there also is an infrastructure that was set up toward the beginning of D.C., which can’t keep up with current D.C.”

      Two weeks ago Mayor Gray visited and said the city would complete a $2.6 billion sewage tunnel by 2025 to handle the water.

      From my reading, lots of cities use the sewer system to also capture and move water from storms. As the number of storms and the amount of rainfall/flooding increase, the storm sewers cannot handle it.

  • winterbanyan

    I would like to add here that when sewage treatment and water treatment problems become more than very minor, the EPA moves in swiftly. Depending on the nature of the problem, a municipality may be fined…or it will be offered a Federal grant for improvements.

    Considering the wide-spread need we are facing, I suspect the number of those grants is going to increase dramatically. But waiting until the grants are needed is a poor choice in terms of public health.

  • LI Mike

    NYC and environs sewage treatment systems were inundated by superstorm Sandy. Not good. Plants knocked out for days, untreated waste recycled back into the environment.

    Officials realizing that if superstorms are the new normal and flood plains need to be redrawn, then treatment plants have to be rebuilt.

    NYT article

    • addisnana

      Rebuilding some of the water and sewage infrastructure is one of the huge expenses of the Sandy recovery. The rest of the country could feel some sympathy for the task and also learn from the NY, NJ experiences. It is staggering to read about the sheer size of the projects required to get things back up and functional. Reading about it I have to wonder if $60 billion is close to enough.

  • A lot of cities have over the years assumed “well, good enough,” and places like St Louis still have some pipes that are made of … wood. 😯 Yes, wood pipes.

    The problem is the same across a wide range of infrastructure. We don’t think about rebuilding replacing until the original fails catastrophically.

    • addisnana

      MSD the metropolitan sewer district does say anything I can find about wood sewers. they do say,

      MSD operates and maintains 9,790 miles of sewers. The age of sewers maintained by MSD ranges in age from less than a year old to 150 years old.

      sewer talks about early use of log pipes and “Orangeburg Pipe” a wood fiber mix.

      The smaller sewers built after the 1850s in the United States were generally made of vitrified clay or of cement mortar; brick was used for the larger-sized conduits. The older parts of New York City employed a lot of wood stave pipe for their sewers. Starting in Washington, D.C., concrete was used for large diameter mains; St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit, and Philadelphia soon followed.

      Interesting site if the history of sewers fascinates you.