Thursday, August 9, 2012

Sinkholes In America

According to the Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York’s waste water infrastructure needs an investment of $21.82 billion over the next 20 years to avoid failure. Just to emphasize the point in Bay Ridge Brooklyn not far from where I once lived in the 1970’s, the street suddenly caved in on August 1st and a 30 foot wide, 10 foot deep sinkhole appeared. This was the second sinkhole in this neighborhood of Brooklyn this year. The earlier sinkhole was twice as large. The city of New York immediately began repairs. According to the City, the sinkhole was caused by a 112 year old sewer pipe that gave way and washed away the soil under the road. The sewer pipe had no doubt been failing for a long time to erode that much soil.

Picture by CBS 2 Bay Ridge, Brooklyn sinkhole

The pipes made early in the 20th century were rated for an 80 year life span. New York sewer piping systems have reached the end of their design lives, but there are no plans of a replacement and upgrade of the system. There has been no systematic replacement program. New York has kept the sewer system alive by repairing what breaks after it breaks and spraying it’s mains with concrete. When the sewer systems were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Boroughs of New York still had autonomy and financed and built their own systems to address the problem in the least expensive way, by using a combined storm and sanitary sewer system. The Manhattan and Brooklyn systems were built around the same time modeling the designs of Hamburg, Germany. Nonetheless, the sewers were never designed for the ages, they need to be maintained and upgraded. New York and most of the United States has not maintained and upgraded our sewer systems. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, by 2020 half the sewer pipes in the U.S. will be crumbling and the U.S. risks reversing public health, and environmental gains of the past three decades.(Rose George in The Big Necessity, The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters.)

Failing sewer pipes can pose a significant threat to public health and the environment.  Systems with inadequate hydraulic capacity and/or blockages in the sewer pipes may lead to sanitary sewer overflows and sewage backing up into homes or onto streets.  Some of the health hazards associated with basement flooding by untreated wastewater include the potential presence of pathogenic microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, and protozoa (in a nice moist dark environment). Pipe failures can be grouped into three general categories: hydraulic restrictions (e.g. blockage), hydraulic capacity, and structural condition.

Hydraulic restrictions are the most common problem in wastewater collection systems. Untreated wastewater carries sediment, grease, rags and whatever else you can think to put down the drain or flush down the toilet. The grease congeals with sediment and blockages form. In combined sewers, large items thrown or washed into the storm system create obstructions and restrictions during peak flow times. This can lead to street and basement flooding. Tree root intrusion, sediment accumulation, and grease build-up all contribute to hydraulic restrictions. Aging pipes that sag over time and joints that begin to fail can slow pipe flow and create more favorable conditions for solids to build up in pipes. An ongoing maintenance program for cleaning and flushing sewers is typically adequate to control blockages. However, budgeting for routine preventative maintenance and repairs has not taken place in New York or the rest of the United States. We fix it when it breaks.

Failure caused by inadequate flow capacity is common in combined sewer systems, but may also a sign of other types of problems such as structural defects or design defects. Major sources of pipe structural defects are cracks, broken pipes, and leaks. Pipes sag and sewage does not flow properly, areas of inadequate pipe slope can be due to loss of pipe bedding or inadequate initial slope. Structural failure as in Bay Ridge is typically caused by defects of the pipe wall and/or the soil envelope used to support the pipe.

The EPA reported that the total investment needs of America's publicly owned treatment works as of January 1, 2004, was $202.5 billion and increasing each year. Many systems besides New York have reached the end of their useful design lives, and the nation’s wastewater systems are no longer resilient in their ability to prevent failure, or restore service after a disruption. In addition, the electrical generation and distribution system, the energy sector, contributes to the lack of system’s resilience. Pumps and wastewater treatment plants do not operate without power and reduced reliability of the power supply is increasingly being addressed through the construction of dedicated emergency power generation at wastewater treatment plants and drinking water delivery systems.  Clean and safe water should be the national priority. If we had spent even a quarter of the  $821 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 on the very unglamorous sewers and water treatment systems if the country we would have a cleaner environment, part of our infrastructure would be ready for another century and construction workers would have had jobs. 

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