Sewer pipe ready for installation. Image credit:PacificPipeLine
Mass media has turned the phrase 'green jobs' into a euphemism for low-carbon electricity production. That's narrow minded thinking which limits our understanding of the high payback society can get from Federal stimulus funds. Here's an example. During wet weather, sewerage collection and treatment systems in the USA (and in Canada I assume) commonly bypass partially-treated or completely untreated pee and poo right into rivers and lakes. Millions of gallons per day of brown smelly yuk.
What happens when there's a swine or avian flu outbreak coinciding with intense rains and coastal floods that overwhelm? Turd wrestlers at the first steps of the treatment works are exposed directly to the virus. Worse, raw sewerage floods low lying parts of the city and possibly downstream communities. Directly. With so many sewer systems at the broken point, here is little comfort in reassurances provided by Cornell University scientists that H1N1 virus will be inactivated by well running sewerage treatment plants.
The problems of combined sewer overflow and inadequate treatment capacities leading to the discharge of raw sewerage won't be overcome by water use reduction: it's a flood flow problem. And if the treatment plant workers do become sick, it can only get worse for downstream communities when the treatment works is abandoned.
Viewing the combined benefits of protecting public health and surface waters at the same time, we can't afford not to upgrade badly failing wastewater collection and treatment systems. Here's the progression.
- Step #1: Identify the technical collection and treatment upgrade needs for municipal areas where flood-flow conditions and bypassing are most likely to overlap with a pandemic flu outbreak. Lots of professional and support staff work here for those working on engineering feasibility studies, spanning 1 to 2 years. Some treatability studies in university labs to make sure that H1N1 will be inactivated by conventional treatment
- Step #2: Preliminary design and construction cost estimates completed for three to five municipal areas deemed most vulnerable to flu virus exposure due to bypassing. Professional engineering work involved for several major firms.
- Step #3: start of a year long shouting match on cable TV and talk radio about the merits of proceeding to Step #4. No green jobs here.
- Step #4: Pulling from the findings of Step #2, CDC and EPA collaborate with a Congressional subcommittee to design a Construction Grants program that would direct appropriations to the most flu-risk reducing projects. Mostly technical work and administrative bureaucracy, so few new blue-collar green jobs added beyond what comes from Step #2..
- Step #5: On we go with decades worth of back hoe making and operating, sewer pipe extruding (as pictured) shipping and laying, trenching, shoring, and safety-vest-wearing work for thousands of people in cities all over the nation. This work would be every bit as important to public health as pharma workers making tamiflu or inoculation doses and also every bit as vital as the health care workers that we'll still need as backup.
Notes: pathogenic virus can not be released into rivers and lakes to experiment with half life of the organisms in the free environment. Chlorinating raw sewerage being bypassed is only partially effective at best. In a word, Chlorine does not well penetrate the chunky stuff.