The Worst Polluter

This country has made great progress in cleaning up its waterways over the last four decades.  Conservatives like to pretend it's not true, but there is absolutely nothing wrong from a strong property rights perspective in stopping both public and private actors from dumping their waste in waterways that don't belong to them.

The problem today with the EPA is not the fact that they protect the quality of the commons (e.g. air and water) but that

  1. New detection technologies at the parts per billion resolution have allowed them to identify and obsess over threats that are essentially non-existent
  2. Goals have changed such that many folks use air and water protection as a cover or excuse for their real goal, which is halting development and sabotaging capitalism and property rights
But there is one actor that is still allowed to pollute at unarguably harmful levels.  You guess it, the government.

What might surprise Brougham and many other New Yorkers who were appalled by last summer’s sewage discharge is that there’s nothing particularly unusual about it. Almost every big rainstorm causes raw sewage to flow into the city’s rivers. New York is one in a handful of older American cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are others — that suffer from poor sewer infrastructure leading to Combined Sewer Overflows, or CSOs. New York City has spent $1.6 billion over the last decade trying to curb CSOs, but the problem is so pervasive in the city that no one is sure whether these efforts will make much of a difference.

CSOs occur because the structure of New York City’s sewage system often can’t cope with the volume of sewage flowing through it. Under the city’s streets, thousands of drains, manholes and plumbing systems converge into a few sewage mains. These pipes can handle the 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater that the five boroughs produce on a typical day — about as much water as would be generated by a 350-year-long shower. But whenever the pipes gather more water than usual — such as during a rain- or snowstorm — the pumps at the city’s 14 wastewater treatment plants can’t keep up with the flow. Rather than backing up into streets and homes, untreated sewage systematically bypasses the plants and heads straight into the waterways.*

In this way, 27 to 30 billion gallons of untreated sewage enter New York City waterways each year via hundreds of CSO outfalls, says Phillip Musegaas of Riverkeeper, a New York clean water advocacy group. Musegaas says he finds it especially upsetting that city officials don’t effectively warn the thousands of people like Brougham who use the waterways and could encounter harmful bacteria during overflow events.

I thought this correction was funny:

This story originally read that New York City’s sewage system could “barely” handle the city’s wastewater, an untrue statement. As long as there’s little surplus stormwater entering the system, it’s adequate to handle the flow.

Oh, so everything is OK, as long as it does not rain.  Which it does 96 days a year.  I am just sure this reporter would say that BP's offshore safety systems were "adequate" if it only spilled oil 96 days of the year.


  1. Paul:

    Add Milwaukee, WI to that list of larger cities with combined storm and sewage drainage systems. Work began in 1977 to solve this problem, not by systematically rebuilding and separating the storm drainage system [which does not need to be treated] from the sewage system [which DOES need to be treated], but by digging a "not quite deep enough" tunnel system under the city. The concept is to store excess wastewater from heavy rains or snow melt in the tunnel system, then pump it to the treatment plants for proper processing later. There is a "diversion system" in place, in case the deep tunnel system cannot handle the excess wastewater, in which case [you guessed it], untreated wastewater and raw sewage bypasses the treatment plant and is dumped into Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, this happens most of the times it rains in Milwaukee. And, no, there is no consequence to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District [MMSD], which manages and operates this system.

    Basically, there is little improvement now over the way things were before the Deep Tunnel Project was conceived and built, for ~$3billion price tag. This is another great example of a big government boondoggle, but you wouldn't know it from their website:

  2. Highway:

    'Little surplus stormwater' means stormwater in excess of what the storm drain system is able to handle. That doesn't mean that every rain event results in a CSO. It means that ones that are heavy enough to add a lot of flow will lead to an overflow. And only for the period of time that the rainfall runoff exceeds the capacity, which is likely a small portion of the storm event.

    So while it's a problem, and should be fixed, it's not happening 96 times a year.

  3. Craig:

    " Conservatives like to pretend it’s not true,"

    That line gets real old. I've never heard a conservative who tried to claim that the air and water aren't cleaner than they used to be. If anything, it's the liberals who refuse to acknowledge it -- might cut their hopes for funding the reduction in plant-food emissions. Seriously, though, your insistence on moral equivalency between the right and the left is strained.

  4. Bob Smith:

    "New detection technologies at the parts per billion resolution have allowed them to identify and obsess over threats that are essentially non-existent"

    Just look at the EPA's new mercury standards for example #1.

  5. Che is dead:

    "Conservatives like to pretend it’s not true, but there is absolutely nothing wrong from a strong property rights perspective in stopping both public and private actors from dumping their waste in waterways that don’t belong to them."

    You really need to get a life. Conservatives have written, passed and signed key environmetal legislation. That they insist that environmental regulation produce some benefit reasonably associated to that regulations cost is not a denial of the role of property rights.

  6. robert:

    Utilizing charged and stereotyping language: "real goal, which is halting development and sabotaging capitalism..." only serves to negate some of the more interesting points your were attempting to make. Bias does not complement an otherwise well-written article.

  7. John Moore:

    "Conservatives like to pretend it’s not true,..."

    Your inaccurate stereotyping of conservatives is really tiring.