One could be forgiven for believing that, with all this talk of the coming “climate catastrophe,” Americans would be scrambling to flee Hurricane-prone states like Texas and Florida. The reality is just the opposite: Thanks to their low cost of living, and minimal taxes, Florida and Texas are among the states in the US where populations are rising via interstate migration. Contrast that with Connecticut, which is far less vulnerable to hurricanes, and where the population drain has accelerated dramatically in recent years.
Both Harvey and Irma impacted some of the fastest-growing counties in the US, exposing a problem that’s probably frustrated city and county officials for years. How to upgrade decades-old sewage and water-treatment systems.
When the storms struck, the ancient systems quickly failed, releasing millions of gallons of raw sewage into city streets and canals, complicating the cleanup effort, according to Bloomberg:
“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. In fact, 4 of the 10 fastest-growing coastal counties in the eastern U.S. are in Florida. 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.”
Of course, this problem requires a monumentally expensive fix: 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. In fact, many parts of Florida and Texas face infrastructure challenges even when they aren’t deluged by rain because of rapid population growth.
Otherwise, populations risk the spread of pathogens with every overflow.
Estimates for scale of the untreated and poorly treated wastewater that leaked because of both Irma and Harvey are expected to keep climbing. Even Hurricanes Hermine and Matthew, which were modest compared with this year’s storms, released some 250 million gallons of wastewater that hadn’t been fully treated between Aug. 31 and Oct. 15, 2016, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
A treatment facility in Clearwater, Fla. Leaked 1.6 million gallons of wastewater into a creek, according to filings with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. And that incident paled in comparison to a 30-million-gallon discharge of raw sewage after Hurricane Hermine caused pumps to fail, according to David Porter, the city’s public utilities director.
Electrical outages throughout the state caused lift station pumps to stop running in St. Petersburg and Orlando, prompting at least 500,000 gallons of spillage. A pipeline broke in Miramar, Florida, sending sewage spilling across a parkway – creating a nasty scene for the contractors who had to hunt for the rupture. And operators of a Miami-area wastewater treatment plant blamed a power outage for 6 million gallons of sewage released into Biscayne Bay.
Of course, this isn’t limited to a regional issue: Hurricane Sandy also unleashed a flood of sewage when it struck New York and New Jersey in 2012:
“After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast US in 2012, damaged treatment plants and pumping stations caused untreated sewage to flow into local waterways for weeks. All told, facilities in the eight states hardest hit by the super storm released 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage, according to one assessment.”
And as Bloomberg explains, loose sewage poses lingering public-health and economic risks to a community…
“Sewage discharges carry both health and economic risks, as officials may order the closing of affected beaches and rivers for swimming and boating long after storm clouds have passed. When untreated water or raw sewage is spilled, it can deliver toxic chemicals from roads, E. coli from human waste and other pathogens that have the potential to cause viruses, parasitic infections, rashes and other health conditions.”
…Because the pollution can often be difficult to detect.
“We focus on the water and the flooding and the impacts to homes and everything else, which is super important,” said Danielle Droitsch, a program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “But understanding environmental contamination issues is more complicated. We don’t necessarily see the pollution, sometimes you can’t smell it and yet it’s there.”
And while there’s no such thing as a perfect sewer system…
“There’s no sewer system in the world that can be built that’s completely leak proof,” said Nathan Gardner-Andrews, chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Plants generally are designed to handle twice their normal capacity, but “when you get some of these rain events and you’re talking four to six to eight inches of rain in an hour, the engineering is such that you cannot build a system to hold that capacity.”
…Some sewage systems in rapidly growing southern counties, including the Florida counties affected by Irma, are more than 50 years old, and they demand immediate attention.
“Aging infrastructure may not be able to keep up with the demands of a surging southern population. In many cases, such as in south Florida, elements of the sewer system range from 60 to 70 years old, with pipelines that are even older, said Kelly Cox, a staff attorney and program director for the environmental group Miami Waterkeeper.”
“You throw a hurricane on top of that, and you are starting to see a lot more problems,” she said.
Talk about a sh—storm…
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