In the latest article in NY Times' series "Toxic Waters," about the "worsening pollution in American waters, and regulators’ response," the focus is on sewer systems. And the main example is here in NYC, starting at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, "where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated." And you will never think about a rain fall the same way again.
A few miles away, people were walking home without umbrellas from late dinners. But at Owls Head, a swimming pool’s worth of sewage and wastewater was soon rushing in every second. Warning horns began to blare. A little after 1 a.m., with a harder rain falling, Owls Head reached its capacity and workers started shutting the intake gates.
That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.
“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”
The city's DEP deputy commissioner James Roberts explains, "When you get five inches of rain in 30 minutes, it’s like Thanksgiving Day traffic on a two-lane bridge in the sewer pipes."
Many sewage systems dump untreated or partly untreated waste into water ways, but the Times reports, "fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators." And federal money to improve them has fallen 70% in the past two decades. Connaughton says, "The public has no clue how important these sewage plants are Waterborne disease was the scourge of mankind for centuries. These plants stopped that. We’re doing everything we can to clean as much sewage as possible, but sometimes, that isn’t enough."