We don’t like to wallow in our own effluence. (Really, in the animal kingdom, who does?) As our species has proliferated like bacteria in an outhouse, engineers have developed better ways to dispose of our waste. New York City alone processes 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily through 14 treatment plants. So what happens when our sewage systems are overwhelmed?
First, let’s take a look at how we’ve historically dealt with our waste in municipal settings. In the United States, officials began devising ways to drain our urban effluence around 1800. The earliest means of colonial waste disposal were privy vault-cesspool systems, which usually dumped the waste into the yard or street. But when increasing populations warranted a change, the privies were replaced by a centralized water-carriage sewage system around the mid-19th century, which generally carried the waste directly into a nearby waterway.
The centralized water carriage system remains popular today — with technological advances in place to treat the wastewater before it heads into the waterways. But these systems are aging and faltering, often with environmentally devastating results. Aging sewage pipes have wrecked havoc across the United States in places like Nevada and Florida, where 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage recently seeped through a South Florida neighborhood. Officials there are now considering a decentralized system of disposal, as well as new, innovative ways of dealing with waste.
In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers “estimates an annual national discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage through leaks, broken pipes and other mishaps.” The sewage destroys aquatic life and shuts down beaches while spreading diseases such as hepatitis A.
So grab your rubber gloves — here are five serious sewage disasters in history, plus how we can prevent future ones from flowing our way.
The sinking of the Princess Alice, London, 1878
In the mid-19th century, London was on the brink of environmental disaster. Unable to handle its immense population growth, local cesspools were spilling waste into the Thames. After the “Great Stink of 1858,” when the Thames was literally flowing with waste and members of Parliament soaked their curtains in chemicals to block out the smell, changes were enacted.
Chief Engineer Joseph Bazalgette created an impressive sewage system that is still used today. However, Bazalgette’s system formed large mud banks of waste at the end of the Thames. In 1878, the pleasure steamer the Princess Alice sunk in the middle of the filthiest part of the Thames. As many as 650 people died — not from the collision, but from drowning in toxic, raw sewage.
Wastewater overflow in Waikiki, Hawaii, 2006
On March 24, 2006, a sewer line rupture in Waikiki, Hawaii, resulted in 48 million gallons of raw sewage reaching the Ala Wai Canal. This was the largest spill of untreated water waste in Hawaii in nearly 20 years. Official closed area beaches, posting as many as 103 signs along the waterways. The spill occurred when a pipe, installed in 1964, cracked after floodwater overwhelmed the sewage system.
Sewage basin collapses, Gaza, 2007
On March 27, 2007, four people were killed and 20 injured when the barriers around a sewage pool broke near the Um El-Naser Bedouin village. Sewage waters flooded the village as high as two meters, damaging as many as 250 homes and destroying 20 others. The sewage pool had been protected by earthen walls, which experts said did not meet the minimum safety requirements against high sewage water levels. Residents later claimed that sewage had been dumped into pools non-stop.
Seafield sewage treatment plant failure, Edinburgh, 2007
On April 20, 2007, millions of liters of raw sewage flowed into the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh, Scotland, in one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history. After a pump failed at one of the city’s sewage processing plants, untreated waste flowed for days into the nearby waterways. Officials note that “100 million liters of partially diluted sewage, enough to fill 170 Olympic-sized swimming pools” were discharged, devastating fish and wildlife in the area.
200 homes flooded in San Isidro and La Providencia, Mexico, 2011
In April 2011, as many as 200 homes in Mexico flooded after a local sewage pipe cracked. After heavy rains overwhelmed the sewage system, as much as 6,000 cubic meters per second of raw sewage flooded the area. Three children were injured in the disaster, and two of them had to be treated for hypothermia.
So how do we prevent future sewage disasters?
Sewage treatment remains a basic human right — yet more than 3.4 million people die each year from sanitation-related causes, 99 percent of them in the developing world. While constructing proper sanitation treatment plants around the world remains critically important, how can the Western world improve its own waste water treatment?
Fortunately, advances in sewage technology march on. Bruce Logan, an engineer from Penn State, recently developed a fuel cell that can turn the chemical energy of sewage into electricity. Other researchers are developing a way to recycle urine into fertilizer by recovering phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater. And miniature robots have been created to cruise our sewage lines to spot leaks before they happen.
These technological advances can’t come soon enough. Each year, Americans create 12 trillion gallons of waste water — and we’ve seen just how well living without sewage treatment works for the developing world.
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