- Note - This massive, essentially unimaginable amount
of poisons, pharmaceuticals, bacteria and viruses
(from HIV to HEP-C) are literally poisoning our environment and its people.
This is beyond outrageous - it is suicidal, a national disgrace.
We salute USA today and Mr. Vanden Brook for this contribution to reality
- SSO 700 is an unremarkable spot. Just a pipe, hidden
by trees and brush, emptying into Mill Creek near downtown Cincinnati.
- ''It just gushes, even in dry weather,'' says Mike Fremont,
president of the Ohio environmental group Rivers Unlimited. ''If you know
what it is, you keep your distance.''
What it is, is human waste -- hundreds of gallons of it at a time flowing
untreated from toilets into the creek. Sanitary Sewer Overflow 700 is not
only disgusting, it is illegal. But the city won't shut it off because
plugging SSO 700 and more than 100 pipes like it all over Cincinnati would
require raising sewer rates about 1,500%.
''It would bankrupt us,'' says Patrick Karney, director of the Metropolitan
Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati. ''It would be, last one out, turn
out the lights. Cincinnati would just be another wide spot on I-75.''
Dozens of cities like Cincinnati, some with sewer pipes laid in the 1800s,
are dumping raw human waste into streams and lakes. The practice is generally
illegal under the 1972 Clean Water Act. Yet it continues an estimated 40,000
times every year because cities balk at the enormous expense of modernizing
and expanding their sewage systems.
But if taking care of the problem is costly, so, too, is doing nothing,
environmental activists say. Raw sewage in the water is a primary factor
in the sickening of 1 million people a year, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention. It poisons shellfish, closes beaches and
endangers supplies of drinking water.
''Raw sewage is a health concern,'' says Mike Cook, director of wastewater
management for the Environmental Protection Agency. ''Beach contamination
is a concern. Human exposure to harmful microorganisms is a concern.''
After decades of threats and fines, federal authorities are cracking down:
* In Baltimore, city officials agreed to pay a $600,000 fine and spend
$940 million over 14 years to upgrade its sewer system. Since 1996, Baltimore
dumped at least 100 million gallons of untreated waste into its waters.
Some of the sewage spewed into tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, one of
the nation's top sources of shellfish.
* In Baton Rouge, local officials plan to spend as much as $461 million
to improve their sewer system to avoid dumping 1.2 billion gallons of untreated
waste each year into the Mississippi River.
* In Greenwich, Conn., a million gallons of inadequately treated sewage
has been dumped into local waters, according to the EPA. Local officials
agreed in January to pay a $285,000 fine and upgrade the sewage treatment
The Justice Department and the EPA have taken other cities to court over
sewer problems, including Atlanta, Birmingham, Ala., Honolulu, Los Angeles
and Miami. Regulators expect to be done this fall crafting proposed regulations
requiring all sewage treatment facilities in the country to improve their
systems and notify the community where overflows occur.
White House hurdle
But the proposal will then face another hurdle: It must be submitted to
the White House Office of Management and Budget. The office reviews such
rules to determine their costs and benefits as well as the science that
backs them, says Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the office.
The office has 90 days to pass judgment on proposed rules and has not hesitated
to send rules back to agencies for changes. From July 2001 to March 2002,
it returned for reconsideration more than 20 rules, more than the total
returned during the entire Clinton administration.
Environmentalists say the government has already taken too long to fix
''We urge you to put the interests of the American public first and to
move forward with rules that will at least warn our citizens before they
take a dip in fecal-contaminated waters,'' stated a recent letter from
11 environmental groups to the EPA.
The groups called on the EPA to immediately adopt rules proposed by a federal
advisory committee in 1999 that would require monitoring for sewer overflows
and reporting them to public health authorities.
But not everybody says new rules are the answer. Ken Kirk, executive director
of the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies, says the Clean Water
Act fails to consider the limits of engineering.
''There is no way to design sanitary sewers to accommodate a zero-tolerance
policy. Period,'' Kirk says.
In some cities, including Baltimore and Baton Rouge, pipes may be 100 years
old or older. They break and crack, releasing waste, or become clogged
by tree roots. Often the pipes are too small to handle the growth in city
Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) typically occur when rainwater seeps into
broken sewer pipes and fills them past capacity. Treatment plants can't
handle the rush of water and sewage, so overflow valves like SSO 700 in
Cincinnati open up and let the disease-carrying waste spill out. Some overflows
are inevitable, Cook says. Heavy rainfall can overwhelm even well designed
and maintained systems. But the numbers today indicate that sewage planners
have not kept up with population growth.
''It could be that sewer capacity is exceeded by population growth,'' Cook
says. ''In some cases, they've hooked up more people than the system can
The health effects of this lack of planning are significant.
Bacteria, viruses and parasites, common in human waste, can infect shellfish,
swimmers and drinking water. They cause diseases such as cholera, hepatitis
and meningitis. Contamination of this kind is estimated to kill 900 people
and sicken nearly 1 million every year, the CDC says.
Not all of these cases can be traced directly to sewage. Animal waste contains
dangerous microorganisms, too. But most environmentalists argue that human
waste is the greatest danger to people.
''Trouble is, the same virus can have very different symptoms,'' says Chuck
Gerba, a University of Arizona professor of microbiology. ''I may get a
rash, you may get a fever, another guy may get a cold. Good old ankle-grabbing
diarrhea is common, too.''
Illnesses and pollution
Getting a handle on the problem is a challenge.
One study found that as many as 1,400 cases of illness from contaminated
shellfish go unreported each year. Last year, a survey by the EPA of about
2,400 beaches showed that more than 600 issued swimming advisories or closed
because of poor water quality. In 2% of the cases, local officials attributed
actions to sanitary sewer overflows. Environmentalists say the percentage
is probably much higher.
''This is a problem that's getting worse and isn't being properly addressed,''
says Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water project for the Natural
Resources Defense Council. ''Sewage overflows occur in every city. These
pipes are out of sight, out of mind.''
Representatives of treatment plant operators contend that heavy rain or
melted snow make sewer overflows a part of life. They say trying to eliminate
overflows entirely would cost ratepayers billions of dollars and make negligible
improvements in water quality.
Better maintenance of sewers and eliminating the worst overflow sites should
be the thrust of any new EPA rule, says Greg Schaner, director of governmental
affairs for the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies.
Some communities have gotten a handle on the problem without new regulations.
Fairfax County, Va., had video camera crews seek out deteriorated pipes
and focused on keeping tree roots and grease clogs out of the system. That
helped reduce its SSOs from 128 in 1995 to 48 in 2001.
Cities facing bills to fix faulty sewers at an estimated cost of $10 billion
a year in total say zero tolerance will bankrupt them. And they say it's
unfair to expect city residents -- many in poor neighborhoods -- to pay
the whole bill.
''There should be some cost sharing with the federal government,'' Baltimore
Mayor Martin O'Malley says. ''A clean bay is a great goal, but the manner
in which they're forcing us to pay for it is totally unfair and not right.''
Under pressure from the EPA, Cincinnati's sewer district has agreed to
spend $43 million to eliminate 17 of its worst overflows. The deal will
keep 100 million gallons of raw sewage from being dumped into waterways
Plugging all of Cincinnati's estimated 100 SSOs could cost $3.6 billion,
Karney says. Even if he had 15 years to do it, ratepayers would still see
annual bills jump from $320 to $5,100 based on the average bill for winter
water usage. That's an increase of almost 1,500%.
''These Johnny-come-lately regulations weren't anticipated in the 1800s
when these systems were built,'' he says. ''There was no eye to the environment
in those days. You can't miraculously redo 3,000 miles of sewer. It takes
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