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Sewers Threaten Our Environment

No website about toilets would be complete without touching on the environmental issues associated with toilets. Global warming, spinach epidemics, deadly outbreaks of E. coli contamination, lettuce scares, these are small potatoes when it comes to environmental problems we face today. According to Thomas Rooney, president of Insituform Technologies in Chesterfield, MO; the world's largest sewer, oil and water-pipe repair company, "The biggest environmental problem in the world today is broken sewer pipes polluting waterways, swimming areas and drinking water all over the world."

A 2004 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Integrity Project asserted that sewage overflows both threaten the environment and constitute a public health crisis. Some 500,000 Americans become ill each year from contaminated drinking water, and as many as 3.5 million others get sick from swimming in water tainted by sewage overflows.

After a search of the internet, I found many articles about this widespread problem. Recent studies at the EPA and the University of California at Los Angeles showed that sewage-related diseases are now a full blown national health care crisis of epidemic proportions.

In 2003, 230 of New England's freshwater and saltwater beaches were closed at least one day from sewer pollution, for a total of over 1,900 missed beach days. That's a tangible improvement from 2001, when the region's coastal and freshwater beaches were closed more than 2,400 beach days. In Rhode Island, however, the number of beach day closures at saltwater beaches rose from 111 in 2001 to 385 last year. The increase is partly the result of more beaches being monitored last summer compared to 2001.

Tip of the Iceberg

Sinkhole caused by ruptured sewer

A visible sympton of hidden underground problems is the sudden appearance of a sinkhole. There are numerous causes of sinkholes, but sinkholes that occur in urban areas are often due to water main breaks or sewer collapses when old pipes give way. Rainwater leaking through the pavement carried dirt into a ruptured sewer pipe and caused the sinkhole in the photo to the left.

Local and state officials across the country say thousands of miles of century-old underground water and sewer lines are springing leaks, eroding and in extreme cases causing the ground above them to collapse. Though there is no master tally of sinkholes, there is consensus among civil engineers and water experts that things are getting worse. Local geology or underground hazards are blamed for many sinkholes: weak limestone in Florida, old mineshafts in Pennsylvania. But increasingly, the authorities say, as American cities grow older and basic repairs are put off, when the ground gives way the problem is bad pipes. [By William Yardley; Published: February 8, 2007; The New York Times]

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) serves two large counties in Maryland just outside of Washington, DC and is one of the 10 largest public water companies in the nation. They started serving those communities 89 years ago; in May 2007 alone there were 42 breaks and leaks in the WSSC's water network. WSSC is presently in the process of developing a 30-year infrastructure plan to replace aging underground pipes.

The Untold Story

Mr. Rooney says, "But only a few people are talking about the broken pipes that really hurt our environment, get people sick, cause people to die, and cost even more money than oil pipeline shutdowns. We are talking about sewer pipes, of course. Even the worst Alaskan oil pipe is in better shape than your average city sewer pipe, including cities like Boston, where the first sewer system was installed in the 1800s and the harbor is still recovering from decades of dumped sewage. Say what you will about oil spills, but they are usually small and in remote places where damage to human life, property, and wildlife is minimal. I've seen enough of both to know this: Crude oil is much cleaner and less toxic than sewage. And oil spills are a lot less common. Yet oil gets all the ink, while sewage escapes scrutiny."

Trenchless Repiping

Trenchless or cured-in-place repiping, is a technique for renovating underground pipes without having to dig up the old pipes. I first heard of this innovative method 30 years ago when I worked with a local water utility company. Art Brigham, then the Director of Public Relations for the utility, had just returned from a trip to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and was enthusing about how they had just renovated their underground pipes without having to dig up their gardens. With 1,050 acres of gardens, woodlands, and meadows; 20 outdoor gardens; 20 indoor gardens within 4 acres of heated greenhouses, one can only imagine how many miles of pipes are under the gardens and lawns.

On a much smaller scale than the Longwood Gardens project, I benefited from this innovative technology. At the time of the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake, I owned a house in West Hills that was severely damaged by the quake; it took over a year to repair the damage. Unfortuately, a lot of underground damage to the drainage system didn't become obvious for several more years. Many people had the same problem, and the state reopened the insurance claims. Using a special camera, my plumber was able to show me that every joint of the sewer from the house to the street was broken open. Without disturbing trees, scrubs or gardens, the sewer was renovated using the trenchless technology.

A Global Problem

According to the National Resources Defense Council, "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every year, in each county across the nation, the amount of untreated sewage that enters the environment is enough to fill both the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden. And Swimming in Sewage, a February 2004 report by NRDC and the Environmental Integrity Project, shows that sewage overflows -- some legal, some not -- are creating an environmental and public health crisis ..."

A layer of foam frequently forms on the surface of the New River near the International Boundary with Mexico

Aging sewer pipes and polluted water are not just a U.S. problem; the problem is worldwide and affects us all. The photo to the left is of raw sewage and industrial waste as it flows into the U.S. from Mexico as the New River passes from Mexicali, Baja California to Calexico, California

See also: Spread of Polio

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