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from outdated systems known as CSOs, for combined sewer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
"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
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."