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Great Lakes Article:

Hundreds of cities struggle to fix outdated sewers that overflow during storms

05/11/2002

INDIANAPOLIS — Nearly every time rain falls on Indiana's capital, a repulsive scene replays itself in rivers and streams; gaping pipes spew human waste into waters where children often play.

The same brownish torrent fills the Pittsburgh area's "Three Rivers" each year with about 16 billion gallons of bacteria-laced stormwater roiling with everything people flush down their toilets.

In Fairmount, Ind., sewage treatment plant manager Steve Deal knows that the problem is more than the community of 3,000 can afford to fix. "It might be easier to just pick the whole town of Fairmount up and move it a mile down the road," Deal said.

Every day it rains or snows, 772 of the nation's older cities and towns face a health and environmental threat from outdated systems known as CSOs, for combined sewer overflows, single-pipe sewers that move both sewage and storm water to treatment plants.

Those communities are also struggling with a federal mandate to fix their systems, improvements that come with a high price tag but scant federal funds to help pay for them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it will take about $45 billion in new construction to address the problem over the coming years.

"For virtually every CSO community in the nation, this will be their largest public works program ever. It's huge," said Mark Poland, executive secretary of the CSO Partnership, based in Richmond, Va.

The nation's 772 CSO communities, mainly older cities in the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, are in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Their brick-lined sewers were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before the age of indoor plumbing, to prevent streets from flooding during downpours. In later years as toilets, sinks, and bathtubs were added to homes, the waste was funneled into the same storm sewers.

The federal government in the 1970s required cities to lay separate storm and sewer lines. By then, hundreds of cities were left with sewers that work fine in dry conditions but overflow into rivers and streams during wet weather with bacteria-laced discharges that kill fish, fuel algae blooms that taint waterways green, and leave a sickening smell that can linger for weeks.

"A quarter-inch of rain is all it takes for us to overflow. And the more that goes in, the more comes out," said Carlton Ray, an environmental engineer for Indianapolis' Department of Public Works.

Municipalities have three basic options for combating their overflows: enlarging their sewage treatment plants, storing and slowly treating the combined sewage and storm water, or separating the pipes. Most of the bill will be paid by low-interest loans, bonds, and taxpayer rate increases.

Thirty years after the 1972 Clean Water Act began prodding cities and industry to begin cleaning up their waters, only about one-third of the 772 communities are complying with minimum federal CSO controls. "No one has ever gotten elected to public office promising to fix their sewer system. It's just not a popular thing to spend money on," said John Schombert, executive director of the Three Rivers Wet Weather Demonstration Project in the Pittsburgh area.

A 1994 EPA policy gives communities the flexibility to determine the most cost-effective ways to address their overflows, given their finances. There's no specific deadline, but doing nothing can result in fines and stymie a community's growth.

Indianapolis plans to spend more than $1 billion over the next 20 years in an effort to reduce its sewer overflows about 80 percent by expanding its sewer plants and likely building huge underground storage tanks to capture most of its overflows for later treatment. The average sewer rate for the city's 780,000 taxpayers is expected to climb 40 percent by 2020 to help pay for it.

Threatened by the EPA with $275 million in fines, officials in the Pittsburgh area are devising a 12-year, $3 billion plan. The 83 communities, including Pittsburgh, are bracing for sewer rate hikes to help pay to clean up the water flowing into the area's Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers — waters that provide 90 percent of the local drinking water.

The threat of fines also prompted Atlanta to come up with its nearly $2 billion sewer fix, which includes boring three tunnels through a total of 20 miles of solid granite more than 100 feet beneath the city. These giant tunnels would serve as huge storage tanks capable of storing about 300 million gallons of tainted stormwater until precipitation subsides, at which point their contents would be funneled into two new treatment plants.

During the next 10 years, the average wastewater bill for Atlanta residents is expected to rise from the current $31 to about $65 a month. In return, taxpayers will get something that may have no price, said David Peters, Atlanta's environmental director. "There are a lot of spring-fed natural creeks that flow through Atlanta, and once this work progresses people are going to see these streams turn crystal clear," Peters said. "People want their streams back, and they're going to get them."

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