Spilling the News

Aug. 3, 2006

About the author: Tim Gregorski, editorial director [email protected]


In recent months, the editorial staff of Water & Wastes Digest has noticed a rather disturbing trend—the number of wastewater-related spills in the U.S. has increased, dramatically.

Admittedly, we have not conducted a formal scientific study on the number of wastewater spills. Rather, WWD editors have noticed the upward tick of news stories, gathered from a variety of consumer and business-related sources, covering wastewater spills at locations throughout the country.

This summer, WWD editors tracked close to 20 such stories.

A few examples:

  • 4.8 million gal of untreated wastewater spilled into North Carolina’s Cape Fear River after a contractor ruptured a sewer main. The wastewater escaped for close to three days before the pipe was repaired;
  • Also in North Carolina, heavy rains caused an embankment to collapse, dislodging a 30-in. wastewater pipe, which caused about 8 million gal of sewage to spill into Swift Creek. The creek runs into Lake Wheeler and Lake Benson, both of which were closed to recreational activites until bacteria levels dropped;
  • A farmer in the greater San Francisco area pleaded guilty to pumping tens of thousands of gallons of dairy wastewater into a creek in 2005. This summer, the farmer was fined $34,000 and received three years probation due to the illegal dumping;
  • A spill of raw sewage contaminated the Spokane River in Washington and forced a ban on recreational use of the river for a number of days. As of this writing, the amount of wastewater spilled into the river had not been determined, but various reports have stated the leak had been “going on for days, possibly weeks.” The city of Spokane treats 35 to 40 million gal of wastewater per day. A clogged wastewater pipe is to blame for the spill;
  • Approximately 8 million gal of wastewater was released into California’s San Joaquin River after a valve was opened during a construction project. The valve released wastewater into the river for approximately 10 hours before it was discovered; and finally,
  • A lift station malfunction is being cited as responsible for a 55,000-gal sewage spill into the Salt Fork River, located near Tonkawa, Okla.

I could continue, but I think you understand how these wastewater spills are quickly moving from a problem to an epidemic. I am not attempting to condemn those responsible for the spills; rather, my point is to address the impact the wastewater spills can have overall.

As noted above, the millions of gallons of wastewater spilled into our waterways not only has a profound affect on the waterways themselves, but also the surrounding environment, and most importantly, the citizens that use these waterways for recreation, and perhaps, consumption.

What has not been reported is the number of people who have taken ill after having been exposed to the waterways contaminated by the wastewater. I wonder if anyone has come up with a formula that can determine the number of people who have gotten sick in relation to the number of millions of gallons of wastewater spilled.

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