Sewer horror stories

December 2006 » Feature Articles
Civil engineers must raise awareness about the dangerous condition of the nation’s wastewater infrastructure.
Thomas Rooney

Civil engineers must raise awareness about the dangerous condition of the nation’s wastewater infrastructure.

Of all the questions civil engineers have to answer, this has to be the easiest: Why don’t more people know about the environmental and public health disasters that tens of thousands of sewer spills create every year?

Answer: We simply do not do a good job of telling them. By we, I mean, of course, every person in the industry who is not faxing a reporter; calling talk radio; writing a letter to the editor; or buttonholing a public official to let them know about America’s most hidden, most widespread, and most damaging public health problem: The millions of people getting sick from the 40,000 sewer leaks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates America has each year. And these are just the ones that were found—and reported.

The state of our sewer infrastructure is too important to leave to the public relations people anymore; our industry must take action.

Sewage spills were less of a problem when cities designed their wastewater collection systems 60 or even 100 years ago. Back then, if there was a leak or a plant had to shut down and discharge raw sewage into local waters, the official reaction was usually "solution by dilution."

That is exactly what Missouri sewage operators told the Kansas City Star following a recent 1.5 million-gallon spill into the Missouri River. "It’s going to dissipate pretty quickly as it goes downstream, so the danger is not going to be around for long." But this philosophy doesn’t work anymore: too many people live too close together now.

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times reported that professors from the University of California, Los Angeles and Stanford found 1.5 million people got sick last year in the Los Angeles area alone from damaged pipes that allowed sewage-related bacteria to reach the beach. So much for solution by dilution.

In Baltimore, researchers at Johns Hopkins University said that virtually every fish caught in that city’s rivers is unfit to eat because of poor water quality.

And the list goes on. Hawaii, North Carolina, Texas, Delaware, California, and others experienced their worst sewer spills in decades—if not ever—in the last 12 months. The spills caused countless health problems, which were largely ignored or attributed to other causes.

As engineers, we know many of the spills come from rotting pipes, which allow sewage to escape. Just as bad are broken pipes that let rain water in—overwhelming sewage treatment plants and causing even more spills. Yet the news stories reporting sewage spills say the problems are because of rain, when we know broken pipes are the real culprits.

Officials in Jacksonville, Fla., found out this truth after fixing 100 miles of sewer pipes. They hadn’t given much thought to the idea that better pipes would stop infiltration; their goal for the rehabilitation project was eliminating leaks. Yet, soon after the newly repaired pipes were online, city officials discovered that the sewage plant was operating well under capacity—and it was a facility they were planning to expand because they thought it was too small! It wasn’t; it was just receiving flows that should never have been entering the system. Not only did this community cancel plans to expand the plant, it paid for the sewer repairs by selling its excess sewage treatment capacity to neighboring cities.

There are lots of sewage stories, but no one is connecting the dots. Some people do not even know the dots exist. We must raise awareness to let them know.

For example, another problem resulting from our nation’s degraded utility infrastructure is sinkholes. Every day, all over America, huge sinkholes are swallowing homes, cars, and even people. Most engineers know why: Dirt falls into broken pipes and is whisked away, as if on a conveyor. Day by day, even a small crack in a sewer or water pipe is soon excavating large amounts of dirt over the broken pipe, and under an unsuspecting sidewalk, road, or home. You know the result, although most reporters do not: sinkholes.

Eastern Pennsylvania has been hit with an epidemic of sinkholes during the last year. Most of the stories treat the sinkholes as an act of God, seemingly happening without cause. A network TV news affiliate in Philadelphia at least was honest about its ignorance when a reporter stated, "Engineers are trying to figure out how the sinkhole formed." Engineers need to start telling the media why these events occur. To paraphrase Democratic campaign advisor James Carville, "It’s the pipes, stupid!"

Spread the word

As president and CEO of the company that looks inside more broken sewage, water, and oil pipes than any company in the world, I guess we should take our fair share of the blame for not doing more to get the word out. I realized this recently upon my return from India, where I was talking to national officials about cleaning up their rivers by fixing their water and sewer pipes. In Asia, 40 percent to 60 percent of the clean potable water disappears into leaks from distribution pipes before it ever reaches one home. In Philadelphia, the loss is 30 percent. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s loss rate is only average.

I (re)discovered the need to publicize the sewer crisis upon returning home and finding a huge pipeline break in my neighborhood. And a few days later, a front-page story in the local paper reported that tree roots were destroying sewer pipes. I’m glad the paper published the story, but if the hometown paper of the largest sewer and water pipeline repair company in the world is just getting the message about our deteriorating pipes, we have a lot of work to do in the rest of the country.

So here is the message civil engineers need to spread: Most water and sewer pipes in America were built 60 years ago, but they were meant to last only 50 years. Therefore, the situation will get worse as pipes get older.

And here is the punchline: Broken pipes are not just an environmental problem anymore. Today, the 40,000 sewer leaks are a full-blown public health crisis, causing millions of people to get sick every year. It’s as if we have 10 diseased spinach epidemics every day.

Additionally, there is good news for those who want to know where we will get the money to fix the hundreds of thousands of miles of bad pipes in America. The money is already there. Cities that fix and maintain their pipes before they break save money right away by avoiding emergency repairs and reducing treatment costs. No longer are they treating millions of gallons of water that entered the pipes through cracks and faults.

The money they save is often more than the cost of better maintenance and early repair. Additionally, cities such as Atlanta have shown that whatever other cash may be needed will come from ratepayers, once they realize a few extra dollars a month for healthier sewage treatment is still less expensive than a trip the emergency room.

We can all take a lesson from cities such as Reno and Indianapolis too. Their officials didn’t wait for the problem to get worse. They focused on public education and reaching out to stakeholders, and it worked. These cities are repairing problem pipes, cutting down on leaks, and protecting their citizens.

So we know the problem—bad pipes. We know the solution—talking about them. And we know where to get the money to do the repairs—savings from emergency repairs, reduced treatment costs, and healthcare. This leaves us with one more question—and it may be the most important of all: How do we start talking? Write letters to the editor, fax reporters, bug your city council members whenever you see them, and join clean water groups.

Don’t wait for orders from headquarters. Now is a good time to act.

Thomas Rooney is president and CEO of Insituform Technologies Inc., Chesterfield, Mo. He can be contacted at 1-800-234-2992.

Taking action

Thomas Rooney, president and CEO of Insituform Technologies Inc., has had op-ed pieces about the nation’s wastewater infrastructure crisis published in various newspapers and websites nationally and has been a guest on radio talk shows. To help generate ideas about articles and op-ed submittals you could write for your local papers, check out the two following articles:

"Corroding sewers, not Alaskan oil pipes, are the real danger," which was published this summer when the Alaskan oil pipelines were shut down (www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2006/08/15/corroding_sewers_not_alaskan_oil_pipes_are_the_real_danger). 

 "Sewage diseases worse than deadly spinach" was published in September during the height of the E.coli outbreak (http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060930/OPINION04/609300334).

Also, Insituform provides links to a growing list of news stories about the sewer system crisis at www.insituform.com/content/351/in_the_news.aspx.


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