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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Combined Sewer Overflow Systems in American Cities

A few years ago, I toured a beautiful house in Indianapolis that I was interested in buying.  It was around 100 years old, beautifully restored with stained glass and wood floors and trim.  Big backyard that boarded Fall Creek, and a bargain for the price.  That is, until I walked into the backyard and the smell from the creek hit me -- the smell of an open sewer.  It had rained the night before and the storm sewers had overflowed, mixing with the sanitary sewers and dumping the combined wastewater into a sewage outflow point on Fall Creek just a few hundred feet from the house.  Even though I knew that Indianapolis's combined sewer outflow system functioned this way, I had no idea where the sewage outflow points were located.  I'm lucky that it rained that night, or I probably would have put an offer in on a house where my children would be constantly tempted to play in the adjacent creek, a creek tained by raw sewage on a regular basis.

The Indianapolis Star has an article today that maps the sewage outflow points in the city of Indianapolis.  Not surprisingly, since the system is old, the points are mostly located in the core city, which means that 2/3 are located in what are now poor neighborhoods.  Half of the 144 outflow points are located within a quarter-mile of a school, a park, or a recreation center. 

Indianapolis is under a federal mandate to clean up this system, at a cost of $3.1 billion, before 2025.  That's a long time for raw sewage to continue to pollute the city's creeks and rivers.  Amazingly, although there is a high level of awareness of this problem in the city, there is very little political will to speed up the solution, despite the public health risks.

Indianapolis is not alone.  According to the EPA, 772 cities have combined sewage overflow systems.  I'd be interested in learning whether any of these other cities are voluntarily cleaning up their systems before the EPA mandate deadline.

Tanya Marsh

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