An overflowing sewer in Georgia. Photo via USGS
Troubling news has surfaced about sewage systems in the US: over the last three years, 9,400 sewers--more than 37% of the all sewers across the nation--have illegally dumped untreated human waste, hazardous chemicals, and other dangerous materials into clean rivers and lakes. The results are often disastrous, as some damning video evidence proves.Wasted Water
The New York Times (which completed the investigation by analyzing EPA data) has revealed that our water often isn't as clean as we'd like to think--and it's often a result of poor planning and a decline of green spaces in cities:
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.Such sewage backups can create catastrophes like this infamous case:
Serious Sewer Problems
The public's water access is deeply effected too: "sometimes, waste has overflowed just upstream from drinking water intake points or near public beaches," the NY Times reports. Essentially, unsustainable planning has lead to sewers that overflow too easily, then dump potentially dangerous waste whenever and wherever they do.
And it needs to be emphasized that this isn't a case where the effect is simply gross or unseemly--these dumping violations can have severe effects on the health of US citizens. 20 million people get sick every year from drinking water containing bacteria easily spread by untreated waste.
In the study, researchers found that the number of kids in Milwaukee with violent diarrhea rose every time the sewers overflowed there. Four million people in California get sick every year from being exposed to untreated waste when swimming.
Photo via Fredericksburg
Breaking the Law, Disgustingly
And it's important to note that the violations that lead to these risks are indeed illegal--every time a sewer overflows and spreads harmful waste and chemicals, it is breaking the law established by the Clean Water Act. Such violations have been recorded in cities like San Diego, Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Jose and San Francisco, according to the Times. But only around one in five of the recorded violations actually gets issued a fine, meaning there's little incentive for municipalities to fix their systems.
The EPA says it is overhauling the way that such laws are enforced--many believe that cities must face the threat of fines before they revamp their faulty sewer systems. But the process could be long and painstaking, and politically precarious. Some fear that a major fix is still a far ways off. Let's hope not--this is a dangerous, and, yes, disgusting problem, that needs to be addressed swiftly.