Monday, November 23, 2009

Combined Sewer Overflows Pollute Water and Beaches

An excellent article has been posted by the New York Times covering the epidemic of combined sewer overflows and their impact on water quality, beaches and public health. The video below covers an ongoing issue with an overloaded and aging sewage system that has been causing beach closures in Newport, RI. This has been a concern of the RI chapter for some time now.

It was drizzling lightly in late October when the midnight shift started at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

A worker maintaining a tank at a Brooklyn wastewater treatment plant. Half the rainstorms in New York overwhelm the system.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »
Damon Winter/The New York Times

William Grandner, superintendent of Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant in Brooklyn, kept an eye on multiple monitors that track the flow of sewage.

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

A few miles away, people were walking home without umbrellas from late dinners. But at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates.

That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.

“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”

One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.

But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.

In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.

But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times analysis shows.

It is not clear whether the sewage systems that have not reported such dumping are doing any better, because data on overflows and spillage are often incomplete.

As cities have grown rapidly across the nation, many have neglected infrastructure projects and paved over green spaces that once absorbed rainwater. That has contributed to sewage backups into more than 400,000 basements and spills into thousands of streets, according to data collected by state and federal officials. Sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches.

There is no national record-keeping of how many illnesses are caused by sewage spills. But academic research suggests that as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.

A 2007 study published in the journal Pediatrics, focusing on one Milwaukee hospital, indicated that the number of children suffering from serious diarrhea rose whenever local sewers overflowed. Another study, published in 2008 in the Archives of Environmental and Occupational Health, estimated that as many as four million people become sick each year in California from swimming in waters containing the kind of pollution often linked to untreated sewage.

Around New York City, samples collected at dozens of beaches or piers have detected the types of bacteria and other pollutants tied to sewage overflows. Though the city’s drinking water comes from upstate reservoirs, environmentalists say untreated excrement and other waste in the city’s waterways pose serious health risks.

A Deluge of Sewage

“After the storm, the sewage flowed down the street faster than we could move out of the way and filled my house with over a foot of muck,” said Laura Serrano, whose Bay Shore, N.Y., home was damaged in 2005 by a sewer overflow.

Ms. Serrano, who says she contracted viral meningitis because of exposure to the sewage, has filed suit against Suffolk County, which operates the sewer system. The county’s lawyer disputes responsibility for the damage and injuries.

“I had to move out, and no one will buy my house because the sewage was absorbed into the walls,” Ms. Serrano said. “I can still smell it sometimes.”

When a sewage system overflows or a treatment plant dumps untreated waste, it is often breaking the law. Today, sewage systems are the nation’s most frequent violators of the Clean Water Act. More than a third of all sewer systems — including those in San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco — have violated environmental laws since 2006, according to a Times analysis of E.P.A. data.

Thousands of other sewage systems operated by smaller cities, colleges, mobile home parks and companies have also broken the law. But few of the violators are ever punished.

The E.P.A., in a statement, said that officials agreed that overflows posed a “significant environmental and human health problem, and significantly reducing or eliminating such overflows has been a priority for E.P.A. enforcement since the mid-1990s.”

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Rainwater and sewage are treated at Owls Head.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Sewage often flows into waterways like Newtown Creek in Brooklyn.

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

In the last year, E.P.A. settlements with sewer systems in Hampton Roads, Va., and the east San Francisco Bay have led to more than $200 million spent on new systems to reduce pollution, the agency said. In October, the E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, said she was overhauling how the Clean Water Act is enforced.

But widespread problems still remain.

“The E.P.A. would rather look the other way than crack down on cities, since punishing municipalities can cause political problems,” said Craig Michaels of Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. “But without enforcement and fines, this problem will never end.”

Plant operators and regulators, for their part, say that fines would simply divert money from stretched budgets and that they are doing the best they can with aging systems and overwhelmed pipes.

New York, for example, was one of the first major cities to build a large sewer system, starting construction in 1849. Many of those pipes — constructed of hand-laid brick and ceramic tiles — are still used. Today, the city’s 7,400 miles of sewer pipes operate almost entirely by gravity, unlike in other cities that use large pumps.

New York City’s 14 wastewater treatment plants, which handle 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater a day, have been flooded with thousands of pickles (after a factory dumped its stock), vast flows of discarded chicken heads and large pieces of lumber.

When a toilet flushes in the West Village in Manhattan, the waste runs north six miles through gradually descending pipes to a plant at 137th Street, where it is mixed with so-called biological digesters that consume dangerous pathogens. The wastewater is then mixed with chlorine and sent into the Hudson River.

Fragile System

But New York’s system — like those in hundreds of others cities — combines rainwater runoff with sewage. Over the last three decades, as thousands of acres of trees, bushes and other vegetation in New York have been paved over, the land’s ability to absorb rain has declined significantly. When treatment plants are swamped, the excess spills from 490 overflow pipes throughout the city’s five boroughs.

When the sky is clear, Owls Head can handle the sewage from more than 750,000 people. But the balance is so delicate that Mr. Connaughton and his colleagues must be constantly ready for rain.

They choose cable television packages for their homes based on which company offers the best local weather forecasts. They know meteorologists by the sound of their voices. When the leaves begin to fall each autumn, clogging sewer grates and pipes, Mr. Connaughton sometimes has trouble sleeping.

“I went to Hawaii with my wife, and the whole time I was flipping to the Weather Channel, seeing if it was raining in New York,” he said.

New York’s sewage system overflows essentially every other time it rains.

Reducing such overflows is a priority, city officials say. But eradicating the problem would cost billions.

Officials have spent approximately $35 billion over three decades improving the quality of the waters surrounding the city and have improved systems to capture and store rainwater and sewage, bringing down the frequency and volume of overflows, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection wrote in a statement.

“Water quality in New York City has improved dramatically in the last century, and particularly in the last two decades,” officials wrote.

Several years ago, city officials estimated that it would cost at least $58 billion to prevent all overflows. “Even an expenditure of that magnitude would not result in every part of a river or bay surrounding the city achieving water quality that is suitable for swimming,” the department wrote. “It would, however, increase the average N.Y.C. water and sewer bill by 80 percent.”

The E.P.A., concerned about the risks of overflowing sewers, issued a national framework in 1994 to control overflows, including making sure that pipes are designed so they do not easily become plugged by debris and warning the public when overflows occur. In 2000, Congress amended the Clean Water Act to crack down on overflows.

But in hundreds of places, sewer systems remain out of compliance with that framework or the Clean Water Act, which regulates most pollution discharges to waterways. And the burdens on sewer systems are growing as cities become larger and, in some areas, rainstorms become more frequent and fierce.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

The Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is the largest of New York City’s 14 treatment plants.

Toxic Waters

Systems on the Brink

Articles in this series are examining the worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response.

All Articles in the Series »

Readers' Comments

Share your thoughts on this article or ask a question of Charles Duhigg, who isresponding to readers' comments today.

New York’s system, for instance, was designed to accommodate a so-called five-year storm — a rainfall so extreme that it is expected to occur, on average, only twice a decade. But in 2007 alone, the city experienced three 25-year storms, according to city officials — storms so strong they would be expected only four times each century.

“When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes,” said James Roberts, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Government’s Response

To combat these shifts, some cities are encouraging sewer-friendly development. New York, for instance, has instituted zoning laws requiring new parking lots to include landscaped areas to absorb rainwater, established a tax credit for roofs with absorbent vegetation and begun to use millions of dollars for environmentally friendly infrastructure projects.

Philadelphia has announced it will spend $1.6 billion over 20 years to build rain gardens and sidewalks of porous pavement and to plant thousands of trees.

But unless cities require private developers to build in ways that minimize runoff, the volume of rain flowing into sewers is likely to grow, environmentalists say.

The only real solution, say many lawmakers and water advocates, is extensive new spending on sewer systems largely ignored for decades. As much as $400 billion in extra spending is needed over the next decade to fix the nation’s sewer infrastructure, according to estimates by the E.P.A. and the Government Accountability Office.

Legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill contains millions in water infrastructure grants, and the stimulus bill passed this year set aside $6 billion to improve sewers and other water systems.

But that money is only a small fraction of what is needed, officials say. And over the last two decades, federal money for such programs has fallen by 70 percent, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which estimates that a quarter of the state’s sewage and wastewater treatment plants are “using outmoded, inadequate technology.”

“The public has no clue how important these sewage plants are,” said Mr. Connaughton of the Brooklyn site. “Waterborne disease was the scourge of mankind for centuries. These plants stopped that. We’re doing everything we can to clean as much sewage as possible, but sometimes, that isn’t enough.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Cost of Poor Water Quality at Surfrider Malibu

A recent decision by the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board will eliminate the use of septic systems from Malibu and force the City to install waste water treatment systems. This decision was made in order to improve a chronic pollution problem at Surfrider Beach caused by failing and poorly-sited septic systems. While this change will cost the local residents, the existing polluted conditions has been costing the public for years due to sickness and loss in tourism dollars. Read more on the Surf Economics Blog.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Beyond Graphs and Tables: Effective Communication of Water Quality Results

The Astoria High School BWTF students made this photo montage to demonstrate their concern with a polluted stormwater outfall that drains onto a local beach. The water that drains from the Ecola Court Outfall in Cannon Beach often fails to meet water quality standards. This is of particular concern because during the summer time children often play in this shallow, slow-moving, stream.

Surfrider showed this YouTube video at a recent Cannon Beach City Council meeting and asked the City to form a task force to address the pollution problem at Ecola Court Outfall. Surfrider asked for public notices to be posted when the water fails to meet standards and would like the City to investigate the source of pollution in their storm water system.

A Task Force has been assembled and now the real work begins. Great job raising the awareness of a local pollution problem. Let's hope the City is sincere in finding and fixing the source of pollution.

This issue at Ecola Court Outfall and the student's water testing program have also succeeded in grabbing the attention of the local newspaper. Front page story below.

Alarm on the Coast
Finding a needle in the haystack
Contamination at Ecola Court Outfall raises concerns in Cannon Beach

The Daily Astorian

CANNON BEACH - Among the most popular accesses to Cannon Beach is the asphalt path behind the Wayfarer Restaurant in midtown.

Situated between the restaurant and Ecola Inn, the path follows a stream that emerges from the bank and flows to the ocean.

Because the slow-moving stream is shallow in the summer, children often play in the middle of it, building sand dams or shoveling sand into plastic buckets.

But water quality tests in that stream, also known as the "Ecola Court Outfall," show that bacteria thrive there. This year, between March and September, when Cannon Beach sees its greatest number of tourists, 10 out of the 20 water quality tests performed by the state Department of Human Services failed to meet safety standards. The bacteria count in one of those tests was 10 times higher than the standard needed to establish a health advisory warning.

Another four tests indicated that the bacteria count was high but not enough to issue a health advisory.

The problem isn't new, said Charlie Plybon, Oregon field coordinator for Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization that monitors water quality along Oregon's coast.

For the past two years, 27 out of 63 tests have failed, and five of those had 10 times the number of bacteria allowed before a warning is triggered.

The state issues a health advisory when the water sample contains more than 158 organisms per 100 milliliters. The highest number detected was on Aug. 11, 2008, when the state found 2,481 organisms per 100 milliliters.

"There's a sign posted that warns folks that the water is not treated, but it doesn't warn folks when the water is contaminated," Plybon told the Cannon Beach City Council at a recent meeting.

Plybon asked the council to form a task force to look into the source of the bacteria. He also wants the city to improve its notification procedure.

Although he doesn't have documented proof of health problems arising from the outfall, Plybon said a mother had told him that her two children, who had been playing in the water all weekend, came down with bladder infections.

"There have been a number of staph infections of people who had contact with the water," Plybon added. "It's difficult to say where they were coming from, but there's a pretty darn good chance that they may have come from the water."

Plybon said this week that he received numerous calls and e-mails in September from people who were concerned about the daily state health advisories they were seeing on the Oregon Department of Human Services Web site. The human services department is in charge of monitoring water for Oregon.

"In September I was bombarded by business owners, folks who visit part time and local residents," Plybon said. "They felt the city was not doing all it could be doing."

Although Cannon Beach attracts thousands of tourists daily during the summer, it is not subject to state penalties for water contamination because its permanent population is less than 10,000, Plybon said.

The water draining into the outfall has no connection to the city's drinking water system, which is treated in a wastewater treatment plant east of Spruce Street.

Surfrider wants to help the city conduct more tests on its stormwater lines to find the contamination source. Such tests might include a "smoke" examination that would determine if storm lines were accidentally connected to sewer lines. In that test, smoke "bombs" are discharged into a storm drain line, and if residents see smoke coming from their roof vents, they know they have been connected to a sewer line instead of the storm drainage line.

Plybon conducted a similar test in Newport after state tests there revealed a high degree of contamination. There, they found 10 homes - all built within the past 10 years - had the improper connections.

In Brookings, "we accidentally stumbled upon a school that had been hooked up wrong for 30 years," Plybon said.

But city Public Works Director Mark See said Cannon Beach did smoke tests 10 years ago to determine if some storm drain lines were mistakenly connected to sewer lines, and only one house was found to have a misconnection.

"I'm perfectly willing to do additional testing," See said. "A new connection can happen. But we have looked for the telltale signs and we haven't found anything."

One public works employee even crawled into a drain pipe as far as he could go, looking for toilet tissue that might have gotten caught inside. This would indicate sewage had flowed through the pipe. He found nothing.

The city has made a "concerted effort" to separate the storm system from the sanitary system, See said. However, during periods of heavy rain, the systems may overflow, he noted.

The city also has worked with Oregon State University to conduct DNA tests. Employees have tracked down birds, elk, raccoons and even a bobcat to get fecal samples so the OSU researcher could compare them to the DNA in the bacteria from water samples in the outflow.

"Overwhelmingly, there's a very large contribution from birds," See said. "They roost on roofs of buildings and their waste runs down the roof to the drains and into the drainage system," he said.

From there, it enters the stream and flows through the outfall pipe and onto the beach.

"There could be thousands of sources," See added. "It doesn't make any difference what the critter is. In the warmer months, when the stream is slow, bacteria can grow faster." When tests conducted by the state showed health violations for eight consecutive weeks between Aug. 4, 2008 and Sept. 29, 2008, and human feces was found in some of those tests, See said he had his public works employees collected their own water samples along the stream.

See said the creek runs through midtown, from east of U.S. Highway 101, down Sunset Boulevard, along Spruce Street to Dawes Street. It goes underground around Evergreen Street and flows under Gower Street until it emerges from the bank behind the Wayfarer Restaurant.

Discovery made

While taking water samples along the stream's route, the crews discovered that, as the creek moved west, it flowed into a drainage basin near a garbage collection area at an apartment complex. Garbage cans containing diapers had fallen over, and the diapers were near the water. See believes that was the source for the fecal matter at that time.

Following the incident, contaminants in the outfall were reduced until last March, according to the state's tests.

Plybon agreed that testing the DNA in water samples shows what may be in the water, but "they don't quantify what's there."

"You may have a whole suite of animals, but that doesn't tell what's in the majority," he said.

Astoria resident Tom Oxwang, who, with his wife, Gretel, has "adopted" a mile-long stretch of beach to monitor for Oregon Coast Watch, regularly walks past the outfall on his patrol.

"I see children playing in the creek, digging channels in it. It's difficult to see children there, especially without a sign and knowing the reports that we're seeing," he said.

City councilors agreed that more effort needs to be made to reduce the hazard.

"It's important that we get a handle on this, whether it's bird DNA or dirty diapers," said Councilor Melissa Cadwallader. "It's not going to be a quick fix, but it's going to be an important fix."

There are things the city and local residents can do, Plybon said: They could build bioswales along parking lots or in yards to capture pollutants before they go into the drainage system; they could educate themselves and visitors about proper ways to dispose of diapers and animal waste; and they could disconnect their stormwater drains.

"The best solution is preventing these things from happening," Plybon added.

See said a filter box could be installed to remove the pollutants as the outfall flows from the tidegate behind the Wayfarer Restaurant, but that would cost $1 million and another $10,000 a year to maintain.

By October and November, when the rains come, the stream runs quicker, and pollutants that accumulated in the summer are flushed out. Past tests show the bacteria count is reduced to 10 to 50 organisms per 100 milliliters, and sometimes no bacteria is detected.

Both Plybon and See said they plan to work together on writing grants that will pay for ways to control the contaminants entering the stream.

"I like to think that there's always a fix for everything," See said. "Will it be a place that never tests over the allowed bacterial count? No. There are too many variables."