Thursday, May 02, 2013

"Oh, Poop. What a Problem!"

There is a common expression when things go wrong:"Oh, Sh*t!" I will call it "Oh, Poop!"

As students of coastal policy we should use that expression more often. Poop, precisely speaking sewage is one of the great challenges facing coastal scientists, managers, planners, and, of course, stakeholders (human and marine or coastal life).

This will be one of the longest blog postings ever but you could say that poop deserves this in depth treatment! So here goes. (An updated version of this will be in our forthcoming book on Coastal Issues; Coastal Solutions.

Sewage and Coastal Areas (Picture courtesy NOAA)

A rarely discussed coastal zone issue is sewage.

It was called to our attention when reports emerged that Superstorm Sandy resulted in the release of 11 billion gallons of sewage from East Coast treatment plants (mostly New York and New Jersey) into streams, canals or roadways, according to a report by Climate Central. The report said that “The amount of sewage overflow during Sandy, 11 billion gallons, is equivalent to the entire area of Central Park [in New York City] — 843 acres/1.4 square miles — stacked 41 feet high with sewage or more than 50 times the BP oil spill.” See also Bloomber at

The report further said, “Sandy showed the extreme vulnerability of the region’s sewage treatment plants to rising seas and intense coastal storms,” said Alyson Kenward, lead author of the report. Most experts expect seas to rise between 2 to 4 feet by the end of the century even if aggressive actions are taken to control emissions of greenhouse gases. New York and New Jersey officials estimate the cost of repairing damaged sewage infrastructure at about $3 billion. Many more billions will be needed to fortify and modify treatment plants to withstand the impact of future storms.”

In May of 2013 a fire hit a major New York sewage treatment plant. The New York Times reported, “The rivers that run into New York Harbor will be unfit for recreational activities at least through Sunday because of a catastrophic fire that shut down one of the city’s largest sewage treatment plants, the city’s health department said Thursday [May 2, 2013]”

New York, like all American cities and most around the world dumped its raw sewage directly into rivers, canals and the ocean. That’s a reminder of how much we disrespected our waterways and coasts throughout history when they were seen as transportation routes, garbage dumps and sewers.

New York built 14 sewage treatment facilities with money from the Clean Water Act (CWA) passed by Congress in 1972. The act established targets for eliminating the releases of high levels of toxic substances into water and amended in 1983 and 1985 to eliminate further pollution.

One of the key features of the Act is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permit system for regulating point source pollution. Point source pollution includes industrial facilities such as manufacturing, mining, oil and gas extraction, and service industries; municipal governments and other government facilities including military bases; and agricultural facilities especially animal feedlots.

Part of the CWA included funding for sewage treatment facilities that include federal and state funding. The cost of sewage treatment especially on small municipalities is often prohibitive and represents one of the great challenges to improving America’s water quality. In coastal zones this still represents a serious problem. The reason is that water treatment is often located on the coast or on rivers and other aqueous ecosystems. That is primarily because the concept is still that is or when a spill happens it will go into the water, which will eventually dilute the raw sewage.

Climate Central explains that, “Sewage treatment plants are usually placed near water in low-lying areas so that sewage can be piped to the plant via gravity and treated sewage can be easily discharged into receiving waters. These key factors in plant locations make them especially vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding. Compounding the inherent risk of their low-lying locations, many treatment plants have expansive, underground labyrinths of pipes, holding tanks and pumps that can remain waterlogged and incapacitated long after floodwaters recede. They also typically discharge their treated wastewater through large underwater pipes, which can cause facilities to flood from the inside as waters rise, long before the surface water levels overrun the outside of the structures.” That is true not just in the United States but in any city around the world that is located on the coast.

New York City has nearly 600 miles of coastline and these were once pristine, then became completely polluted, and eventually cleaned up and made useable for humans and marine life friendly again.

The San Diego UT reported on a spill caused by an earthquake. “A spill of more than 1.5 million gallons of raw sewage in Playas de Tijuana prompted the Tuesday closure of beaches on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The incident was the result of damage to a large pipe known as the Farallon Collector, which is located about three-fourths of a mile south of the international border. The damage apparently was caused by Sunday’s earthquake swarm centered about 90 miles away in Brawley, Baja California authorities reported.” Aug. 28, 2012

Two million gallons of partially treated sewage and storm water were dumped into the San Francisco Bay in 2008. The cause was not a fire in the engine room but a pump failure accompanied by a failure of the alarm system that is supposed to immediately warn operators.

Most of us have forgotten that the City of Los Angeles was sued in 2003 by local environmental groups including the Santa Monica Baykeeper and by state and federal officials because of 3,670 sewage spills over a ten-year period. Think of that number of spills. It’s enormous and the impact on the environment unconscionable. The city admitted liability for these spills. A federal judge ruled that these spills were in violation of the Clean Water Act.

In 1987 ten beaches in the New York City area were closed when hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw sewage flowed into Hempstead Harbor as a result of a pump failure at a sewage treatment plant.

In 1988, over 9.5 million gallons of untreated sewage flowed into New Bedford Harbor, Massachusetts. As is frequently the case the cause was a power failure at a city sewage treatment plant. According to the Associated Press, “The spill forced the closing of 500 acres of shellfish beds by the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. The plant, built in 1970, has broken down frequently and ''is one of the major lemons of the waste water treatment business,'' Mayor John K. Bullard said.

One of my students recently did a study of Florida sewage issues. She found an article Sewage spills on the rise in Southwest Florida, which reported that “Major plumbing failures and accidents sent nearly 17 million gallons of raw sewage — enough to cover a square mile with waste a foot deep — cascading into Southwest Florida neighborhood streets and vital waterways.” The Herald-Tribune

This is a disturbing picture in a state that relies on tourism and retirees who move to Florida for the beauty of the environment and the climate. It is there fore even more disturbing to realize that Florida has been doing very little to address the Problem. The Herald-Tribune reported that, “Individually, the spills tend to be dismissed by utilities and government officials as a temporary nuisance. While most are small and swiftly contained, cumulatively they amount to a nasty mess that threatens public health and the environment. Despite the damage, government regulators seldom crack down on offenders. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection imposed no fines for the worst effluent spill in six years — a 30-million-gallon release of reclaimed water that flooded a Pasco County community in 2010. The recent Tampa spill, the worst sewage release in six years, drew a state fine of just $30,500.”

The California Coastkeeper Alliance avers that, “Raw sewage spills pose serious threats to public and waterway health. These spills are frequent, are occasionally quite large and add up; nearly 28 million gallons of sewage spilled into California's waterways in just over the first two years of collecting data on leaking sewage collection and transport systems alone. Over 300 water bodies in California are impaired by nutrients or bacteria; it is not a coincidence that over 14,000 known septic systems are located within 600 feet of these impaired waterways.”

Worldwatch Institute reports that, “297 cities in China have not yet built adequate sewage treatment plants, an official with the Ministry of Construction reported. Of these nearly 300 cities, 63 are larger urban areas, including 8 with populations of more than 500,000.” Without adequate facilities to treat their sewage, cities either release this waste untreated into nearby rivers or dump it onto surrounding farmlands. The shortage of high-quality water has become a serious issue in many localities, and water pollution continues to threaten both public health and living standards.” Of course, many of those  rivers and the runoff from farms eventually makes its way to the coast, the beaches, wetlands, and the sea. Moreover, as is tradition, coastal villages and cities directly use the ocean to dump their sewage.

The World Bank reports that Globally, an estimated 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation including clean water and sewage treatment and disposal. They also report that every day, 6,000 children die from diseases associated with inadequate sanitation, poor hygiene, and unsafe water. Diarrhea alone kills one child every 20 seconds.

The reality is that sewage is a tricky problem. It caught our attention that, “Dubai's Burj Khalifa is the tallest free-standing structure in the world. It also has a serious sewage problem.” It is also the tallest freestanding structure in the world, and it features an elevator that travels the longest distance in the world. So it is a marvel of superlatives except for raw sewage. Salon continues by reporting that the building produces roughly 15 tons of total sewage every day. And most interesting is the fact that the sewage is loaded into trucks which then line up to dispose of the sewage at a treatment facility. Often they sit for as much as a full day in line before being able to unload the huge amount of waste. This practice is not limited to Dubai. In many countries including India waste disposal is not a pubic utility or public good. Buildings are expected to collect and dispose of sewage at their expense. It is not too hard to imagine that the companies involved in such disposal may not want to incur great expense and so will find the most convenient way to get rid of the sewage. We know from many, many case studies that this usually is rivers, marshes, and the ocean.

 So as we said, sewage, poop, is an extremely complex challenge and worse of all because of gravity most of it ends up in our rivers, wetlands, marshes, deltas, bays, tributaries, and ultimately beaches and the ocean. Then it becomes OUR real, urgent problem as coastal scientists and managers.

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