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Sewage Crisis Troubles Rural America - 2002-11-23

Many of the sewage treatment plants in the United States are outdated and in disrepair, leading to some 40,000 sewage spills each year. Hundreds of cities and towns are struggling to upgrade their equipment. But the price tag nationwide could top $600 billion.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Congress spent tens of billions of dollars building sewage treatment plants like this one in Lake Placid, New York. Chief operator Stewart Baird leans against a rusted metal rail, looking down at one of the outdoor sluiceways. "Here's the stuff coming in, as you see it you can see it's quite turbid and grayish green in color. You can see remnants of a salad bar it looks like flowing through here," he says.

Sewage streams into cracked cement mixing tanks. Much of the equipment here is patched together, Mr. Baird says. After 30 years of running non-stop, the plant is falling apart. "The age and deterioration of the plant is really showing itself. The concrete corrosion and the steel corrosion is really getting aggressive," he says.

This summer, the massive sewage digester tank malfunctioned. For three days, raw waste flowed into the Ausable River. Bacteria levels spiked. Twenty kilometers downstream, the town of Wilmington was forced to close the swimming beach. At a recent public meeting, people were furious.

"It's devastating. It's absolutely devastating"

Town Supervisor Jeannie Ashworth says the sewage spill damaged the river and the local tourism economy: "To be on the shores of one of the world-renowned trout streams and then to have something like this happen, it was quite a blow," she says.

Spills like this one are increasingly common. There are hundreds of outdated wastewater plants all across the country. Many collection pipes are a century old and literally coming apart at the seams. Ken Kirk, with the Association of Metropolitan Sewer Agencies, says a generation of environmental progress is at risk. "We will have squandered a huge investment in clean water infrastructure and be in the same place that we were 30 years ago," he says. "You know, with major rivers and tributaries around the country in significant decline. We don't want to do that."

A quarter century ago, the U.S. Congress spent $7 billion a year on wastewater infrastructure. This year, federal funding will barely top $1 billion. Local communities are left to pick up the costs. To help prevent future spills, the town of Lake Placid agreed to build a new $10 million plant. But officials here are still working to secure a low-interest loan to help pay for the project. They've already doubled utility rates. And now, the town has announced that new businesses won't be allowed to connect with the sewer system until the upgraded plant comes online, probably in 2004.

That forced developer Joe Barile to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, building a private septic system. Sitting in his office, with a meditation waterfall trickling behind his desk, Mr. Barile says the sewage bottleneck threatens the town's prosperity. "We have momentum right now in rebuilding our community. This will certainly stop a lot of that positive growth. It's going to affect local jobs: electricians, plumbers, hardware stores, lumber yards, everything that is needed to build is going to be affected by this," he says.

Towns across the country are making the same, painful choice. Ken Kirk, with the Association of Metropolitan Sewer Agencies, says they are delaying construction of new schools and new housing developments. "The bottom line is, if you do not have the capacity to treat the sewage, then it's rather unwise to allow additional growth to occur," he says.

Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency released a study assessing the country's entire water infrastructure. The report put the gap in funding at just under $600 billion. Industry groups put the figure at $1 trillion.

Tracy Mehan, Assistant Administrator for Water with the EPA, says whatever the actual shortfall, the crisis is real. But the answer, he says, won't be a big-ticket grant program like the one in the Seventies. "Any new funding would have to come with Congressional appropriations and there is no new appropriation right now," he says.

Mr. Mehan says local governments will have to be creative, seeking loans from state governments and from private investors. Looking out at Lake Placid's network of crumbling tanks, Stewart Baird says until money is found somewhere for a new plant, more spills are certain. "Once or twice a year, it seems like we're having issues like this come up at least. We're pretty vulnerable in a lot of areas," he says.

It's an issue Lake Placid shares with communities all across the United States. The EPA's report predicts that by 2016, nearly half of the sewer pipes in the nation will be broken or in poor condition.