Appalachian Basin

The Curious Case of Water Pollution

Over the weekend a dramatic event occurred that significantly impacted the water quality of all metropolitan New Yorkers.  As reported by the New York Times, the City’s North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which treats up to 125 million gallons of sewage a day, suffered a “catastrophic fire” that shut down the facility before, during and after the event which took about 4 hours just to get under initial control.  This resulted in the spillage of millions of gallons of raw and untreated sewage spewing into the City’s waterways from 56 different outfalls.  Surely such a direct threat to the health of the City’s waters and residents would be met with direct action and cries of “no flushing way”.  The reality is there wasn’t a single protestor to be found.  Apparently sewage isn’t sexy, who knew.

This systemic pollution resulted in the closure of countless city beaches and miles of the city’s coastline to any water related activities on one of the hottest days of the year. Prior to the event, the city’s waters were desribed as being in “excellent condition” according to Riverkeeper (more on them later). 

Real Pollution Versus Pollution From Hyperbole

The fact of the matter is events such as the one above are a dime a dozen.  In New York City, Riverkeeper estimates that 27 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater discharge out of 460 combined sewage overflows (“CSOs”) into New York Harbor alone each year.  For context this is one water body in one city.  Want to see what one of these events looks like in real time?  Check this out (disclaimer: this is nasty stuff).

The story doesn’t end there.  Sewer overflows impact our waters every year at a significant clip.  In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their 2004 “Report to Congress on Impacts and Control of Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows” reported that 824 NPDES permits authorized discharges from 9,348 CSO outfalls in 32 states- most of which are located in the northeast and Great Lakes (area’s home to some of the nation’s most sensitive water bodies).  What does this mean? It means that these “authorized” activities result in the discharge of 850 billion gallons of raw untreated sewage from CSO’s each year.  What’s more? This doesn’t event account for overflows from sanitary sewers which are more technologically advanced systems designed to reduce the occurrence of overflows.  These systems result in an additional 10 billion gallons of raw sewage pollution a year.  Taken together that equals approximately 860 billion gallons of documented pollution a year entering our nation’s waters.  This type of pollution comes with consequences.  In fact, NRDC’s 2011 State of the Beach report showed this in very succinct terms.  

“NRDC’s annual survey of water quality and public notification at U.S. beaches finds that the number of beach closings and advisories in 2010 reached 24,091 — the second-highest level since NRDC began tracking these events 21 years ago, confirming that our nation’s beaches continue to suffer from bacterial pollution that puts swimmers at risk.”

Faced with this information one must ask “where is the outrage”? (More after the jump)

But Our Drinking Water Treatment Removes These Pollutants, After All They Are Biological, not Toxic

This is something we hear from our anti-development friends fairly often.  The only problem is it is not entirely true.  In fact, from 1971 to 2002, there were 764 documented waterborne outbreaks associated with drinking water, resulting in 575,457 cases of illness and 79 deaths, more on that here.  One of the more recent events  that gained notoriety was a 1994 cryptospiridium outbreak in Milwaukee which killed almost a hundred people according to reports.    Again, where are the protests?  Or at the very least, where are the cries for an infusion of federal money to upgrade our degrading water infrastructure which runs the very real risk of failure at a moments notice?  Don’t believe the situation is dire, on the verge of collapse?  Ask the American Society of Civil Engineers, they gave our nation’s a water infrastructure a D- in their latest infrastructure report card.   

Natural Gas Production: More Attention Less Impact

These sewer overflows happen everyday in the United States.  So much so there is a website dedicated in part to keeping track of these events.  Compare that with natural gas production from shale.  A process that has been occurring for decades with real, and alleged, impacts far below what is hyperbolized by the opposition.  In fact, this process has been described by progressive state governments like New York in the following terms:

“[R]egulatory officials from 15 states have recently testified that groundwater contamination from the hydraulic fracturing procedure is not known to have occurred despite the procedure’s widespread use in many wells over several decades.” New York State SGEIS

“ICF’s conclusion is that ‘hydraulic fracturing does not present a reasonably foreseeable risk of significant adverse environmental impacts to potential freshwater aquifers’.” New York State SGEIS

Adding to this is the compendium of quotes from regulatory officials throughout the country who have said time and again that this process can be conducted safely and without incident.  You can read these quotes for yourself here. Compiled by us, stated by independent officials.

I will likely be called a “shill” and a “mouthpiece” for bringing forward these facts.  Certainly, there will be a comment or two declaring this not to be the case and referencing a one-time recent well control incident that resulted in minimal impact to local water resources as reported by DEP.  Some commenters will likely use dated examples that have been disproven or so called “common sense” arguments that refute the facts provided here.  That is fine. 

The only question left to ask is if  these groups truly wanted to protect water quality, and not just stand in the way of an energy source they don’t personally agree with, wouldn’t they be better served using their energies for something that directly affects water quality on an hourly, daily, weekly basis?  Imagine the real water quality improvements that could be made if this energy were put to positive use.  For now, I suppose I will have to do just that, imagine.

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