December 01, 2009
Cities Pollute With Sewage

Hey, I do not want to write about sewage pollution. I'm sure most of my readers would rather be dreaming about space ships, genetically engineered pets, rejuvenation therapies with sexual performance enhancements, electric cars, or post-apocalyptic industrial civilization after a Carrington event. But water pollution is a serious problem that is going to get worse unless we fix the sources of pollution. First off, government-operated sewage plants get away with a whole lot of polluting.

One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nationís 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.

I know this might sound retro to some readers. But we need to finish what the early 1970s environmental pollution control laws set out to do: clean up all the sources of air and water pollution. The environmental movement has run out of steam and gotten distracted. Get back to the basics.

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 nationís 25,000 sewage systems ó including those in major cities ó 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.

Modest proposal: privatize sewage treatment plants so that governments won't hold back on going after polluters. It is politically much more acceptable to go after profit-making private sector polluters. Look at the USSR. The state let itself pollute on a massive scale. When the government doesn't own the capital assets it has a much easier time imposing costs on the asset operators to make them clean up.

Opposed to privatization? Okay, gotta go weirder to solve this problem. Got another idea: install remote control devices on all toilets. Any time a city sewage processing plant starts backing up the plant operators could just flip a switch and turn off the ability of people to flush. Tell them the only way this flush interrupt can be ended is to pass a new bond measure and raise sewage utility rates.

I'm really opposed to pollution. I think we should fix our pollution sources so they stop polluting.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 December 01 08:41 PM  Pollution Policy

James Bowery said at December 1, 2009 9:11 PM:

But it as an oxyfuel.

Brett Bellmore said at December 2, 2009 4:24 AM:

"Tell them the only way this flush interrupt can be ended is to pass a new bond measure and raise sewage utility rates.

Given the usual (Government) budgeting practice of arranging budget cuts to cause as much immediate pain as possible, rather than to minimize it, I can see how that works: My toilet will back up when the budget is inadequate to fund the sewage department Christmas party.

JP Straley said at December 2, 2009 9:54 AM:

Haw haw haw. If you would take the trouble to talk with people that actually operate municipal sewage collection and treatment systems, you would find some interesting facts.

1. It is mostly gravity flow, which means sewer lines naturally follow creeks. Now, these lines overflow or fail from time to time, and the sewage goes straight into the creek. In many areas, these types of failures are the source of more pollution than the effluent from the treatment plant.
2. Sewage collection systems are a huge piece of expensive infrastructure, who is going to buy and operate such a beast? Would you do this as in investment? I'd say the best way to make a small fortune in such an enterprise is to start with a large fortune.
3. The first and best dollar spent is almost always for better management. Big multiplier effect on the reduction of failures and the reliable operation of WWTP. That's boring, though, whereas cutting off people's connection to the sewer is exciting and controversial.

Anonymous said at December 2, 2009 2:02 PM:

You know waaay back inthe mists of history a lot of sewer / water systesm were privately owned, and then because the jackal water/ sewage companies were "too expensive" they got "nationalized" ya think the nationalization paid what it was worth?. Ya think investors aren't going to check into this and get all sorts of guarentees and...

Nevermind, just FINE the public operators already, or threaten to.

Someone who Inspects Waste Water Treatment Plants said at December 2, 2009 2:09 PM:

It is the collection systems that are the issue moreso than the plants themselves generaly.

Almost all plants have an issue known as I&I or Inflow and Infiltration. Old failing collection systems allow stormwater to enter the system and overload the recieving plant. The plants can only handle so much flow at a given time and will bypass untreated or partially treated sewage when the flow exceeds a certain threshold.

The solution is to upgrade the collection systems to modern standards. Either that or build surge basins at the plant if you have room or make the plant bigger to handle a higher peak flow. The latter can be problematic as some designs cannot be easily upgraded. Still, that is a kludge in my book. The collection system is the root problem. The problem is it costs much money to fix, regardless the solution.

Public or private, a rate increase is the only way to do that. Short of some stimulus money actually making it to a genuine problem and not ACORN's pocket.

DaveP. said at December 2, 2009 2:14 PM:

Ignorant much?

I work for a municipality. If I pollute I GO TO JAIL. Private companies will discharge deliberately, because it's cheaper to pay the fines than it is to operate the plant corectly. I've seen it. Do you even know what "violations" means? No? Go ask a water worker about those numbers before you go thinking that you have a clue.

And to top it off: You actually took seriously something that you read in the NYT. Written, I'll point out, by a reporter who knows even less about water and sewer issues than you do.
I rescind my question. Ignorant LOTS.

matt said at December 2, 2009 2:14 PM:

The city of Los Angeles in particular is one of the worst biopolluters in the country. Untreated/undertreated sewage causes regular beach closures and infectious outbreaks along the Southern California coast.

Someone who Inspects Waste Water Treatment Plants said at December 2, 2009 2:14 PM:

Let me add:

I am harder on Government Entities than I am on Private Systems. Government should be setting the example and I hold them to a higher standard. Don't think I cut them any more slack.

That said, if anyone in this thread has any questions, post them and I will try and answer them.

Someone who Insects Wastewater Treatment Plants said at December 2, 2009 2:38 PM:

"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. "

This is a garbage paragraph written by a fool. The point of the biological organisms is not pathogen reduction(though some occurs), it is to convert as much of the solid mass of sewage and dissolved nitrogen in the pee into gasses like Methane, CO2 and Nitrogen and release it into the atmosphere. You want to minimize your solids because removal and disosal is expensive and problematic.

The Chlorine is for sanitizing the effluent prior to discharge and reducing the Pathogens.

tyree said at December 2, 2009 2:53 PM:

And, for about the 10,000th time, we discover that there is a downside to millions of illegal aliens moving into the country. It is to bad that we did not have an adult conversation about the cost of our illegal population a long time ago. Unfortunately, any attempt to bring up the subject was always cut off by some liberal chanting "racism!"

Andy Freeman said at December 2, 2009 3:20 PM:

Better proposal - allow any private entity to use "I'm cleaner than {US govt entity} doing the same thing." as a defense to any pollution action. If the private entity can prove that, said entity should only get off, but should be awarded attorney fees. (I'm torn whether the fees should come from the general budget or the budget of the polluting govt entity.) I'm willing to give an exception for military vehicles when deployed or in training.

No one should be held to a higher standard than govt satisfies. Moreover, until govt keeps its house clean, it has no biz going after anyone else.

Techie said at December 2, 2009 3:56 PM:

Oh yes, by all means, FINE the Public operations, like someone stated above.

It's nice to know why the city keeps upping my sewage/water rates. That'll teach 'em. Pass the cost down to the city taxpayers.

th said at December 2, 2009 4:11 PM:

The problem is sometimes referred to as combined sewer outflow and the feds have made every municipal system that has it fix the problem by raising sewage rates 10 times previous rates, they are given a timetable to fix the mess or else fines start piling up. Those areas like NYC etc. have never played by the EPA rules the rest of the country has had to, they just have all the activist enviro-twits that make everybody else comply.
NYC doesn't even have a water treatment system, they just get it right out of the mountains and chlorinate it, that's it, no filtration or any of the other myriad of useless nit-picking the rest of the country has to deal with and not ironically, NYC water wins taste test contests all the time and nobody's dying.

wcw said at December 2, 2009 8:19 PM:

I tried to stay out of this, and it's deeply off-topic anyhow but.. NYC water wins what now? Maybe if you're used to what San Diego pipes from the dreg ends of the Colorado and calls water, NYC tap tastes best. Not compared to anyplace that's really good. Yes, 'get it right out of the mountains' is exactly how all the good-tasting water supply in the world runs, but NYC gets less than half its water from the Catskills, and the Catskills ain't [the Rockies|the Alps|the Sierras|you get my point].

I've had tap water sourced in all those mountain ranges and a few others besides, and NYC doesn't hold a candle to any of them.

NYC tap water is amazing at one thing, though: boiling bagels before baking.

not amazed said at December 3, 2009 3:09 AM:

years ago refridgerant R-12 was outlawed! the biggest abuse came from the gov using nearly 90% of all R-12 production. does this surprise you?

j said at December 3, 2009 5:43 AM:

Sewage treatment and disposal is an engineering specialty. As commented above, Randall et al are making fools of themselves by emmitting opinions (ie nonsense) on this subject. Sorry.

Randall Parker said at December 3, 2009 7:41 AM:


I'm not trying to make an engineering point. I'm trying to make a political point that governments do not hold themselves to the same standards as they hold private industry.

BTW,Some of the people posting here with technical expertise are disagreeing with others also posting with technical expertise. DaveP is saying something different than some of the others in this industry. Could it be that regulatory enforcement isn't uniform and NYC gets away with things that would put DaveP in jail?

th said at December 4, 2009 4:34 PM:

wcw, Are you from there? NYC water has had this reputation in the water business going back to the 80's, they are apparently still winning statewide awards even now. My point was minimum treatment is safe, its aesthetics are probably changed after sitting in the distribution system over time. I think their watershed sits near the Marcellus natural gas field, once they start drilling up there, their bagels may get airborne.

William O. B'Livion said at December 6, 2009 7:36 PM:

"""The environmental movement has run out of steam and gotten distracted. Get back to the basics."""

It did not run out of steam or get distracted.

It got hijacked by people with a political agenda that had nothing to do with the environment.

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