Government Pollution and Risk Prioritization

A number of times in the past I have pointed out that government bodies in the US tend to be among the worst polluters.  While we sit around and argue about parts per billion of CO2 in the atmosphere, billions of gallons of raw sewage are being dumped into rivers.  I remember when I lived in Boston, the city just piped sewage out into the harbor.  When it got to disgusting and finally garnered a bit of negative media attention, they solved the untreated sewage problem by ... building a longer pipe and dumping it further out in the  ocean.   I worked at an Exxon refinery for a few years and it was always frustrating the regulatory attention we got on the smallest discharge (in general, the water we discharged had to be cleaner than the body of water we were discharging into) when local municipalities were dumping untreated sewage during storms into the same water, without consequence.

Anyway, here is a post from John Hanger via the Unbroken Window blog

A main goal of this blog is to help its readers prioritize the biggest threats to water quality and to understand that, though gas drilling impacts are real, they are well down the list of the most serious causes of pollution of Pennsylvania’s waters.  A must read is yesterday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette front page story about the massive amounts of sewer overflows that reach rivers in the Pittsburgh region multiple times each year. annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette.  And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states.  While America’s sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern.  There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers.  There are no HBO movies on the problem.

Normally, this huge source of pollution that threatens public health and safety is ignored or draws a yawn.

Good risk prioritization is virtually impossible in the current state of the media and political dialog.   Mike Rizzo, writing at the blog, makes a good point:

if you asked people if the government should allow an odorless, tasteless, highly explosive gas to be piped into your house, where a small leak in a pipe could cause the entire house to explode, they would surely say No Way! But then ask them if natural gas stoves should be permitted in their homes and to a man they’d all say, “Of Course.”


  1. obloodyhell:

    }}}} (in general, the water we discharged had to be cleaner than the body of water we were discharging into)

    Jerry Pournelle, I think it was, noted decades ago that Sweden had a very effective, far more elegant solution requiring far less attention than the EPA model:

    They required that any factory, etc., had to place its discharge UPSTREAM of their intake. Since this would tend to produce a positive feedback loop for any "undesirables", it led to self-policing for the most part.

  2. obloodyhell:

    }}} though gas drilling impacts are real, they are well down the list of the
    most serious causes of pollution of Pennsylvania’s waters.

    Not sure they are real, either. For the most part, this claim is a total crock.

  3. MS61:

    This reminds me of something that happened to me back in the 80s. My company was subject to a Clean Water Act citizen suit because of permit violations at one of our plants. There were exceedances and the company in the process of spending milions to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant. I met with the citizen's group bringing the lawsuit knowing that under the way the law worked we were going to pay them something. I did take the opportunity to mention that 3 miles upstream of our plant was a large municipality discharging 9X our daily volume of the same pollutant (ammonia), in gross violation of its permit and which had no plans to upgrade its wastewater treatment. The citizen group's response was that the City's ammonia was different because ours was "industrial" ammonia!

  4. a_random_guy:

    I must have lived in Boston at around the same time you did - I remember that whole disgusting adventure. Did they ever build a proper sewage plant?

    In any case, for cities that actually do treat their wastewater, the problem of overflows ought to be ancient history. Any modern city has two wastewater systems, and separates runoff from sewage. If the sewage system is properly dimensioned, there is no excuse for having an overflow during rainfall.
    Of course, most US cities have an utterly antiquated infrastructure, with no plans to do anything about it. This might be yet another argument for privatization...

  5. Robert Sykes:

    More urban myths. Where is the gagging dog? The environment is one area in which the federal government has a good record of correct prioritization.

    I taught civil/sanitary engineering for 37 years, and I grew up in Boston. A number of years ago, Boston spent several billion dollars to upgrade its sewage treatment facilities. Nowadays no raw sewage is discharged to the bay. They are working on the combined sewer overflows. That will take many years.

    People who lived in Boston as I did in the 1960s will also remember the strong sulfur dioxide smells from the heavy oil electric generating stations. And the sewage foam blowing around neighborhoods in the suburbs. That's gone, too. The only pollution left in Boston is the liberals.

    Raw sewage discharges were common 50 years ago in coastal cities. Engineers did not understand ocean mixing; they do now. No inland city ever discharged raw sewage to rivers after the 1800s, although many inland cities only provided settling and skimming to remove solids. Providing sewage treatment to inland cities was the big sanitary movement of the late 1800s.
    Simple solids removal was adequate in the early 1900s when smallish cities discharged to largish rivers. Almost all large cities began to install advanced sewage treatment systems prior to WWI, and that process was complete by WWII.
    The environmental movement of the 1960s changed all that. Remember the Clean Air and Water Acts, NEPA and EPA, etc. We had 20 years of intense legislation (a major law almost every year) that covered all aspects of the environment and medicine. It was a heady time for civil/sanitary engineers. Nowadays we are in a maintenance and enforcement mode, and we are cleaning up secondary and tertiary problems.

    Since the 1970s, every city in the US has been required to provide "secondary" treatment. This means that the sewage is treated to remove all biodegradable organic matter. Cities have also been required to remove ammonia. In virtually every city in the US, the sewage discharged to rivers and coastal regions is close to drinkable. We are down to third and fourth order problems in sewage treatment.
    As to combined sewers: Every city has combined sewers, unless it was built from scratch (green field construction) in the last 40 years. These were the standard practice up to WWII, and sewerage systems typically last for at least 100 years. Combined sewers overflow during intense (but not moderate) rainfall and bypass treatment. This was once thought to be acceptable as the discharge is generally very dilute compared to raw domestic sewage. And the bigger the overflow, the more dilute it is.
    Combined sewers overflows were a recognized problem back in the 1970s, but they were correctly prioritized as secondary to upgrading normal treatment plants. Today all (as in all) US cities are undergoing sewerage system upgrades to intercept storm flows and treat them prior to discharge. This generally costs several billion dollars per city, and the total national investment will reach many trillion dollars before it is completed.

    It is true, however, that cities were able to delay some upgrades because of politics, whereas industries were not because they had no political support. One of the problems of democracy.

  6. LarryG:

    how about all pollution from your home has to stay on your property? So you have to keep the pollution from the electricity you generate and the tailpipe of your car? All of it has to stay on your property and you have to figure out what to do with it.

  7. The Water Guy from AZ:

    Water pollution from sewers and mine tailings are a problem in the Colordao River basin. But when I asked the mayor of Lake Havasu to clean it up, he asked me to give him money to pay for it. He runs around looking for money instead of cleaning up his own septic tank pollution into Lake Havasu. I would not go to Spring break on the river in that town.

  8. David:

    To be fair, the gas pumped into your house has an additive to make it *not* odorless.

  9. Ed Darrell:

    Perfect place for the federal government to step in, drop about $1 billion to be matched 2-1 by the state, create jobs and clean up the environment at the same time. See Robert Sykes's comment -- in America we used to do this sort of community-building-for-a-better-future stuff all the time.

    But the GOP says we can't afford to have clean water.