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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Problems Underground

Air Date: Week of

Inside and underground in America’s sewage system. (Photo Courtesy of: USGS)

Although we don’t pay them much attention, when sewer systems fail the consequences are far worse than the smell might indicate. Julie Grant of WKSU in Kent, Ohio, goes underground to find out what’s wrong with our nation’s sewage systems.


GELLERMAN: Out of sight, out of mind might work for many things, but not the nation’s aging sewer systems. They weren’t built to handle the amount of sewage and storm water that’s going in them. Too often raw waste winds up in lakes and rivers, and sometimes in the water we drink. The federal government has a loan program to help local municipalities clean up their act, but now the Bush administration wants to trim the funds. From member station WKSU in Ohio, Julie Grant reports.

GRANT: When you walk over a manhole cover on street, you might never imagine the world that exists beneath.


GRANT: We are in a metal man cage - being dropped by crane down into a brand new sewer on the southwest side of Cleveland. The cage is being slowly lowered down a huge vertical shaft. We’re carrying heavy emergency air packs and wearing harnesses, in case they need to pull us out. Daylight fades to darkness, the air cools, and we feel the pungent sewer gas in our eyes, noses, and through our pores. Smooth concrete walls surround us.

GREENLAND: The walls of this pipe and these dropshafts are a good 12-inch thick of concrete, reinforced.

GRANT: Frank Greenland is capital projects director for the Northeast Ohio regional sewer district. Some of the district’s sewers are more than 100 years-old, and made of hand laid brick that’s cracking. He calls the thick new concrete walls of shaft 11”beautiful.”

We touch down about 240 feet underground and stand in a concrete chamber. This is where two tunnels, each 20 feet wide, join together. We’re wearing rubber boots. There’s a few inches of flowing sewage at our feet. It’s headed two and a half miles downstream to a wastewater treatment plant. Greenland says the new sewers are so big because they do more than just transport: they also provide a million gallons of storage.

GREENLAND: We need capacity to store flow. Now we have it. We just finished this project, and we’re getting ready to finish another one upstream of this area in two more years, so now we have storage capacity we didn’t have that the existing old combined sewer system didn’t have in the past.

GRANT: More than 700 cities, most in the Midwest and Northeast, have combined sewer systems like this one. They mix waste from our toilets with runoff from rooftops and streets all in the same tunnel before sending it on to treatment plants. Newer systems usually separate the two. Greenland says newer cities only send the sewage to a plant for treatment.

GREENLAND: But that other, that wet weather component, would head off to the river or to the lake untreated. So combined sewers do a lot to provide treatment to the rain that falls in a typical year.

GRANT: But combined sewers run into problems when there is heavy rain. Before the new Mill Creek tunnel was bored a couple of years ago, water would overflow the sewers during heavy rains, pouring out smelly brown sewage into neighborhood streams.


GRANT: Now Greenland stands on a wooden boardwalk that overlooks Mill Creek and a waterfall in a new park. It would have been hard to even get close to the river a couple of years ago. Greenland points across the way to a bricked-up hole. It used to be sewer outlet.

GREENLAND: That’s the old head wall where there used to be a flap gate. It would pop up and overflows would come streaming out of there, down into this water hole.

GRANT: The US Environmental Protection Agency started mandating that sewer districts reduce combined sewage overflows a dozen years ago. It’s been expensive. The Mill Creek sewer project has so far cost 180 million dollars. And while it’s made a big difference in some areas, dozens of other neighborhoods in just this part of Ohio still see raw sewage overflows – some more than 80 times a year. The Regional Sewer district says it will cost 1.6 billion dollars to upgrade the rest of the system. In the early years after the Clean Water Act was passed, the EPA just gave out money for sewer upgrades. In the late 1980s, Congress changed that to a revolving loan program.

KEMERY: In my opinion, this is one of the most successful public sector financial assistance programs in history.

GRANT: Dale Kemery is a spokesperson for the U.S. EPA. He says the loan program has worked well because sewer districts can borrow money at low interest levels. As they pay the money back, they’re funding subsequent projects. But the Bush administration wants to cut the loan fund by a third in the coming year. Clean water advocates say it’s a trend toward phasing out the program. Ben Grumbles is EPA assistant administrator for water. He says the federal agency wants towns and counties to raise sewer bills to cover the costs.

GRUMBLES: We think the key to long-term sustainability is that utilities and systems are recovering the true value, the cost for the true value of the services they’re providing.

GRANT: In Northeast Ohio, the sewer district says that means they’ll need double-digit rate hikes every year for the next thirty years to pay for these required sewer upgrades. Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio says the US EPA should continue to chip in for local sewer projects.

VOINOVICH: This is federalism. There’s a certain level of responsibility on the federal government’s part, since they’ve put the mandates on the cities to do all these things, that they come up with some of the money to make it possible.

GRANT: Clean Water advocates say Congress created the Clean Water Act in 1972 because local governments weren’t preventing pollution in the rivers and lakes. One major impetus was the burning of this very river, the Cuyahoga. If Congress agrees to phase out the loan program, local ratepayers will fund some sewer upgrades. But local officials in many parts of the country fear the momentum for these water cleanup projects will be lost, because they’re so expensive, and they’re underground, where people can't see them. For Living on Earth, I’m Julie Grant in Kent, Ohio.

[MUSIC: Pram “Distant Islands” from ‘Dark Island’ (Merge – 2003)]



Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District information on combined sewers

U.S. EPA Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund


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