That headline sounds bad, but it’s actually bad journalism. Sewers and wastewater treatment plants are not designed to function correctly during a hurricane the size of Harey or Irma. In that situation, the concern is protecting life and property. Sewage treatment can take a temporary back seat, and generally be brought back online pretty quickly after the extreme event is over.
Millions of gallons of poorly treated wastewater and raw sewage flowed into the bays, canals and city streets of Florida from facilities serving some of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. More than 9 million gallons of releases tied to Irma have been reported as of late Tuesday as inundated plants were submerged, forced to bypass treatment or lost power.
The article goes on to suggest that the sewage released during a hurricane has something to do with aging, poorly maintained infrastructure that is not doing what it is supposed to do in normal weather.
Such overflows, which can spread disease-causing pathogens, are happening more often, as population shifts and increasingly strong storms strain the capacity of plants and decades-old infrastructure. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated last year that $271 billion is needed to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater pipes, treatment plants and associated infrastructure…
Wastewater treatment facilities are especially vulnerable to flooding because they are traditionally built in low-lying areas, near whatever river or waterway they discharge into. That approach works in normal conditions, but coastal treatment plants increasingly are outmatched during intense downpours and fierce storms, especially amid rising sea levels.
“Any time there is a large event — any kind of flood — they get overwhelmed and you have these raw sewage discharges,” said Ken Kopocis, who served as the top official in the EPA’s water office under President Barack Obama.
This is all true. We do need to spend money on our water quality infrastructure, and states and the federal government need to help fix problems that were caused long before anyone alive today was born. And we need to consider climate change and sea level rise when we do all that. But we also need to demand a bit more from our science reporters.