The sickening sewer crisis

Aging systems across the country are causing nasty–and costly–problems

By David Whitman

ATLANTA–Brenda and Mike Martin were planning to ring in the new millennium in style–but it didn’t quite work out that way. The day before New Year’s Eve, the Martins, both real-estate agents, detected a foul odor in their elegant home in the city’s affluent Buckhead neighborhood. The sewer line on their street had become partially blocked with grease from nearby restaurants, and a peek down their basement steps confirmed the worst: Human feces, sanitary napkins, and toilet paper lay sopping on the floor. Brenda, president of the influential Peachtree Park Civic Association, couldn’t rouse the mayor or a cleanup crew as the holiday neared. So on New Year’s Eve, Mike–clad in hiking boots, plastic gardening gloves, and a mask–mopped the raw sewage toward the basement sump pump, threw down cat litter to clump the debris, and shoveled it into a wheelbarrow. That night, as the Martins and their two daughters huddled in front of their TV to watch the ball drop in Times Square, they could hear rats from the sewers burrowing inside the walls.

It sounds like the makings of a camp horror flick. But the Martins’ tale is a real-life nightmare that happens more often than many Americans might imagine. Each year in the United States, sewers back up in basements an estimated 400,000 times, and municipal sanitary sewers overflow on 40,000 occasions, dumping potentially deadly pathogens into the nation’s streets, waterways, and beach areas. The 1972 Clean Water Act prompted cities to dramatically expand their wastewater-treatment facilities and reduce raw sewage discharges. But in recent decades, federal funding for sewer systems has dwindled, even as the demand for wastewater treatment has grown. Aging sewer systems are now faltering around the nation, endangering the health of hundreds of thousands of Americans and creating hefty repair bills for municipalities and consumers. In some small cities and towns, sewer overflow control projects, financed mostly with local dollars, are proving to be the most expensive public-works programs ever. Later this month, at President Clinton’s directive, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose new rules expanding cities’ obligations to eliminate all but the most unavoidable sanitary-sewer overflows.

See no evil . . . For decades, local officials and voters have tended to treat sewers as an “out of sight, out of mind” problem. Playwright Henrik Ibsen captured the politics of denial over a century ago in An Enemy of the People, the story of a doctor who warns that the town’s popular public baths are a health menace in need of wastewater treatment–only to be denounced by the mayor and local citizenry for embarrassing the town and for advocating higher sewer rates.

In a case of life imitating art, U.S. News has found that municipal sewers, with little public recognition, are overflowing or breaking down with disturbing regularity, releasing mega amounts of pollutants. In the past eight months, San Diego has had a raw sewage spill of 34 million gallons and small-town Fort Pierce, Fla., was hit with 8 million gallons. Even these huge overflows are dwarfed by the squalid slumgullions that combined sewer systems unleash during rainstorms. Some 150 million people rely on sewer systems that use separate pipelines for rainwater and sanitary-sewer waste. But an additional 42 million people in 900 communities depend on older, combined sewer systems, which commingle storm water and sewage into one pipe during rainstorms. A downpour last month prompted the Milwaukee sewer authority to discharge more than a billion gallons of raw sewage into area waterways and Lake Michigan. All told, the EPA projects that combined sewer overflows (or CSOs) discharge 1.2 trillion gallons of sewage and storm water a year–enough to keep Niagara Falls roaring for 18 days.

Urban sprawl. Apart from agricultural runoff, no pollution source sullies more miles of the nation’s rivers than municipal treatment plants. Sewer discharges routinely close thousands of acres of shellfish beds to harvesting, and, in city after city, overflows are common. Since President Clinton took office, his former hometown of Little Rock has suffered over 600 reported sanitary-sewer overflows, including cases where sewage coursed through city parks and golf courses. Nationwide, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group estimates that municipal sewage plants released 51 million pounds of toxic chemicals into public waters in 1997, the latest year for which statistics are available.

A draft report for the EPA obtained by U.S. News finds that more than a million Americans become ill each year just from sanitary-sewer overflows (SSOs). Raw sewage contains bacteria like E. coli, viruses, helminths (intestinal worms), and parasites. Most of those stricken suffer stomach cramps and diarrhea, but untreated sewage also spreads life-threatening ailments like cholera and infectious hepatitis. In 1998, a few miles from George W. Bush’s governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas, more than 1,400 residents of the Brushy Creek area became ill with gastroenteritis after 167,000 gallons of untreated sewage spilled into the creek. About 135 residents contracted cryptosporidiosis, the ailment that killed 54 Milwaukee residents after that city’s water supply was poisoned by the parasite in 1993. In 1998, water-borne pollution forced health authorities to close beaches or to put out advisories more than 7,000 times–with sewage spills accounting for as many as half of the shutdowns.

Sewer stoppages and pipeline collapses are rising at a rate of 3 percent a year, according to a survey by the Civil Engineering Research Foundation. And a 1999 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers indicates that the nation’s 500,000-plus miles of sewer lines are 33 years old on average. The Water Infrastructure Network, an umbrella coalition of water and public-works associations, estimates that municipal governments (read: ratepayers) will have to cough up an extra $12 billion a year for capital improvements in the next two decades to replace aging pipes and to meet EPA guidelines. (Read their report.) In tiny Marlette, Mich., the cost per household to fix the sewers may exceed $12,000, and in Lynchburg, Va., and Wheeling, W.Va., residents could eventually be tapped for more than $15,000 per household.

In the meantime, city dwellers with sewage backups have been forced to dig into their own wallets. The Martins spent $4,000 in 1997 to replace a 50-foot house pipe connecting to the city sewer line, but the backups continued. Last October, they spotted their first sewer rat–a Norway rat the size of a small cat–when it scampered across the buffed oak floor of the breakfast room. Ten traps placed that evening in the basement yielded 10 more rats the following morning.

Another resident, chiropractor Henry Jacobs, had to close his holistic health education center after incurring nearly $25,000 in damages from 600 gallons of raw sewage that poured into the facility after grease from a nearby restaurant blocked his sewer line in January 1999. When Jacobs first discovered the mess, he nearly retched: A gurgling geyser was surging out of the toilet, leaving excrement on the walls.

Playing catch-up. After decades of neglect, Atlanta officials expect to spend more than $1 billion to upgrade the aging sewer system. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cave-ins in antiquated sewer lines killed bystanders in a parking lot there, and one collapse even claimed a hook-and-ladder firetruck. While Atlanta’s raw sewage discharges are declining, the overflows have been so bad that many manhole covers have popped, at times creating fecal fountains. The state environmental agency has issued stiff penalties, fining the city more than $23 million since November 1992 for delays in building treatment facilities and for a series of sewer overflows.

In 1970, prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act, roughly 40 percent of people served by municipal wastewater systems did not receive any sewage treatment, and Manhattan’s West Side sent 300 million gallons of raw sewage a day into the Hudson River. The 1972 Clean Water Act helped double the number of people served by municipal sewer systems–from 85 million in 1972 to 173 million in 1996–at the same time that it cut pollution from sewage by 40 percent.

Still, with each new spate of sewer reforms, relieved taxpayers and city officials have tended to declare victory prematurely. More than 40 years ago, Aldous Huxley wrote an essay heralding the efficacy of Los Angeles’s Hyperion sewage-treatment plant. Just before the onset of World War II, Huxley and Thomas Mann took a stroll on a deserted California beach near the future plant, and, as the two famous novelists chatted about Shakespeare, Huxley noticed that “as far as the eye could reach . . . the sand was covered with small whitish objects, like dead caterpillars.” The caterpillars turned out to be condoms–10 million of them by Huxley’s estimate–which had come in with the tide after being discharged from a Los Angeles sewage outfall. When Huxley returned 15 years later, he found the new treatment plant had eliminated the “unspeakable jetsam” and sunbathers splashed in the surf. The problem of “keeping a great city clean without polluting a river or fouling the beaches . . . has been triumphantly solved,” Huxley declared. Not quite.