Crumbling U.S. Sewage System Undermines Public Health

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, February 20, 2004 (ENS) - The United States has a million mile network of sewage collection pipes designed to carry some 50 trillion gallons of raw sewage daily to some 20,000 treatment plants. But parts of this complex and aging infrastructure are crumbling, environmentalists warn, posing a health risk to communities across the nation.

There is no shortage of communities that have already suffered adverse effects from the failure to regulate or upgrade sewage collection and treatment. Their situation is documented in a report issued Thursday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

"Swimming in Sewage" details how sewage pollution costs Americans billions of dollars every year in medical treatment, lost productivity and property damage.

"We have a looming public health crisis on our hands that will take billions of dollars to fix," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project.

In fact, it may cost even more.

A statement on the report by the Association of Metropolitan Sewage Agencies says the Congressional Budget Office, the Government Accounting Office and the EPA all agree there is a national funding gap estimated to be as high as $1 trillion for water infrastructure.

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Some 87 percent of the more than 12,000 beach closures and advisories in 2002 were the result of high bacteria levels in the water. (Photo courtesy NRDC)
The report features seven case studies from around the country that illustrate how exposure to sewage pollution has killed or seriously injured people and harmed local economies.

The case studies are from California, Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Washington, DC.

The report cites figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that found in 2001 there were 40,000 sanitary sewer overflows and 400,000 backups of raw sewage into basements.

The EPA estimates that 1.8 million to 3.5 million individuals get sick each year from swimming in waters contaminated by sanitary sewage overflows.

Many older municipalities, many in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, have sewage collection systems designed to carry both sewage and stormwater runoff.

These systems are often overwhelmed with a mixture of untreated sewage and stormwater, and the EPA estimates that some 1.3 trillion gallons of raw sewage are dumped each year by these combined sewer overflows.

A large part of the problem is one of aging infrastructure, some pipes still in use are almost 200 years old, although the average age of collection system components is about 33 years.

Federal officials predict that without substantial investment in the nation's sewage infrastructure, by 2025 U.S. waters will again suffer from sewage related pollutant loadings as high as they were in the record year 1968.

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Wastewater treatment is expensive and plant operators say federal funds are needed for vital upgrades to occur. (Photo courtesy Fairfax County )
But the greater problem is not one of engineering, Stoner says, it is the lack of political will to address and fund solutions.

Under the Bush administration, the political will to deal with sewage infrastructure problems is weaker than before he took office, according to the report.

The President's 2005 budget request, for example, cuts some $500 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which provides grant money to state and tribal governments for development and upgrades of sewage treatment plants.

This is the biggest cut in the Bush budget for any environmental program and Stoners says it will result in more beach closings, more contaminated shellfish beds, more polluted drinking water supplies, and more waterborne disease, which now sickens nearly eight million Americans every year.

"Waterborne disease outbreaks are on the rise across the country," added Michele Merkel of the Environmental Integrity Project. "Most often, Americans get diarrhea, skin rashes or respiratory infections, but waterborne illness can threaten the lives of seniors, young children, cancer patients, and others with impaired immune systems. Now is the time to boost funding to protect Americans, not cut it."

The administration has also shelved a Clinton era plan to require new controls aimed at preventing raw sewage discharges and has issued a new proposal to ease existing sewage treatment regulations.

The Bush proposal focuses on the practice of blending, which occurs when large volumes of wastewater, caused by heavy rainfall or snowmelt, exceed the capacity of secondary treatment units at a sewage treatment facility.

At most sewage treatment plants, incoming wastewater is treated by the primary units, which separate and remove solids. Then it is sent to secondary treatment units where the remaining solids are broken down by biological treatments, and most of the pathogenic organisms and other pollutants are removed.

The wastewater is then disinfected before it is discharged into waterways.

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Raw sewage and sludge is discharged to the Rio Grande during a bypass of a municipal sewage treatment plant. (Photo courtesy New Mexico Environment Department)
But during heavy storms the capacity of the secondary treatment units is exceeded at many plants and the excess is diverted around these units, then later recombined or blended with the wastewater that has been treated by the secondary units.

These blended flows are disinfected and discharged - the practice is allowed under the Clean Water Act only when there is no feasible alternative.

Under new Bush proposal, blending would be permitted regardless of feasible alternatives.

Upgrading sewage treatment plants to handle peak flows would cost billions of dollars, say industry officials, who call blending a "longstanding, sensible practice."

In addition, EPA officials and industry representatives note that the blended waste must still meet discharge standards, but environmentalists say those standards do not cover viruses or parasites and believe the plan violates the Clean Water Act.

"Swimming in Sewage" cites a recent study that finds the risk of contracting the diarrheal illness giardiasis from untreated parasites in blended wastewater is a thousand times higher than from fully treated wastewater.

The Association of Metropolitan Sewage Agencies called the report's statements on overflows and blending "misleading," but praised the recommendation to create a federal trust fund for sewage infrastructure and treatment upgrades.

The report calls for increased federal funding for wastewater infrastructure and stricter enforcement of current regulations along with improved data collection and public notification.

The environmental groups acknowledge that solutions will be costly, but contend population growth, urban sprawl, climate change and proposed regulatory changes are only going to make the problem more difficult to handle in the future.

Read the full report online at: http://www.nrdc.org/water/pollution/sewage/contents.asp