CENews.com Feature Article | Posted: Friday, December 01, 2006
Sewer horror stories
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-
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.
"Sewage diseases worse than deadly spinach" was published in September during the height of the E.coli
Also, Insituform provides links to a growing list of news stories about the sewer system crisis at www.insituform.