Tuesday, September 18, 2012

9 Billion Gallons Of Sewer Overflows in Pittsburgh Region & $2.8 Billion Clean Up Bill Dwarfs Statewide Gas Drilling Impacts

A main goal of this blog is to help its readers prioritize the biggest threats to water quality and to understand that, though gas drilling impacts are real, they are well down the list of the most serious causes of pollution of Pennsylvania's waters.  A must read is yesterday's Pittsburgh Post Gazette front page story about the massive amounts of sewer overflows that reach rivers in the Pittsburgh region multiple times each year.

The annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette.  And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.

To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states.  While America's sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern.  There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers.  There are no HBO movies on the problem.

Normally, this huge source of pollution that threatens public health and safety is ignored or draws a yawn.

Congratulations to the Post Gazette for not yawning and for prominently and regularly reporting on its region's struggle with sewer overflows.  Such reporting is vital for readers to understand what are the top impacts on water and what are not.


  1. Yeah but gas companies are evil and therefore pose a much greater threat. Don't go confusing people with facts.... :))

  2. Different chemical parameters are affected by CSO flows and fracking wastewater.Combine Sewage Overflow (CSO) damages surface water quality by increasing harmful bacteria, increasing biological oxygen demand, increasing turbidity. It also tends to be released as a pulse as opposed to steady over time. Fracking waste water has higher concentrations dissolved solids and fracking fluid additives - similar parameters tend to be dilute in CSO.

    It's not a competition. Fracking is a new technology and is exempt from certain environmental laws (i.e. Safe Drinking Water Act) so it deserves higher scrutiny than a relatively well understood (but expensive to fix) problem such as CSO.

    1. I agree that drilling should be addressed and it is.

      As a result of drilling wastewater recycling and deep well disposal, plus a treatment plant that can remove TDS in Williamsport, the volumes of drilling wastewater being discharged to streams has been cut substantially. Most shale drillers don't do it at all.

      The CSO problem across the state and around the country dwarfs the water impacts from gas drilling. That too is a fact and it should be understood when trying to deal with pollution of water.

      And discharges of drilling wastewater to streams are not exempt from the Clean Water Act or the Safe Drinking Water Act. Nor should it be.

    2. Fracking and disposal of fracking wastewater is well understood. It just isn't well understood by the average person who isn't involved with the oil and gas industry or the regulation of the industry. What have we learned with all of the protests, articles, movies and studies that people who do the work and regulate it did not already know? Very little I'd say. People who don't know very much about it are making bold pronouncements that turn out to not be true but that take years to undo.

      The same could probably be said for pollution from sewage. I didn't know about this problem until I read this post and read the article. Having read it, I see John's point very clearly - that the sewage problem dwarfs any sort of water pollution from fracking. Here are some other things that pollute our streams, rivers and groundwater way more than fracking:

      Agriculture (probably thousands of times more pollution than fracking and wastewater disposal)

      Livestock - again orders of magnitude more water pollution than fracking

      Cleaning products and detergents (dwarfs fracking)

      Abandoned mine drainage

      Coal burning - Acid Rain and mercury

      Golf courses (pesticides, fertilizers)

      Gas Stations and transportation


      Thus, the attention on fracking and wastewater disposal as a source of water pollution is greatly misplaced. all of the above are doing and will continue to do more damage because no one pays attention to most of them.

      My little crack about gas companies being perceived as evil has a kernel of truth - it is probably the main reason there is so much attention on this issue.

    3. I believe that at least 50% of all sanitary sewer overflows are caused by blockages from restaurant grease.

      This is mainly caused from restaurants that do not regularly maintain their grease trap systems or restaurants without grease trap systems. No one would know this either unless they were in the grease trap business.

      I have links to articles on my website in regard to various sanitary sewer overflows in "Grease Impact News" at www.greasetrap.ca

  3. One thing to remember with ALL water resources issues is scale or granularity that you view the problem maters. On the scale of the entire Ohio River basin fracking may pose a minor component of water quality problems. You may see completely normal conductivity levels once the fracking wastewater is diluted by thousands of square miles of watershed.

    However, If you have a watershed in southwestern PA where a small percentage of land use is agriculture or urban runoff...but you're having problems with exceedingly high conductivity, then in that particular watershed fracking may dwarf other water quality problems.

    The effects of all these different water pollution sources can be separated from each other (i.e. they effect different water quality parameters or through comparative watershed studies). To my knowledge (I'll admit I'm not an expert here) there hasn't been much comparative study looking at localize effects of fracking wastewater. The boom really kicked off only six years ago, and it takes years to perform these studies let alone fund them.

    As a pragmatic environmentalist, I really just want to see the industry pay for their externalities. Its really nothing personal.

    As long as water resources are held in the public trust it is going to take regulation and careful scientific study to protect them, it has nothing to do with moral judgement ("evilness") against the companies themselves. There seems to be a pervasive sense of victimization in the oil and gas industry especially where their special subsidies and environmental exemptions are concerned. Just man up and own it instead of throwing a pity party every time someone proposes the industry pay its own way.

    1. I appreciate the comment. You are absolutely correct that there can be local differences and impacts. The good news about PA drilling wastewater practices is that nearly all shale gas wastewater is either recycled or deep well injected. It's not going to surface waters. Recycling was invented in PA in 2009 and has taken off. There is still some discharges from the shallow gas pre-shale gas industry. But those are down too. The much bigger problem for TDS and water quality are mine discharges.

    2. Jim - I agree with you that industry should absolutely pay for all externalities. The industry needs to be closely regulated and best practices should be the rule.

      But on this, You are worried about a non-issue that isn't happening. No scientific study is needed of the issue because wastewater from hydraulic fracturing of shale gas wells is not being released into any streams or rivers in PA. And you would be amazed how many things people are afraid of when it comes to fracking that are equally non-issues. I really do think that it is because oil companies are involved that people are so easily led to believe that this is a far more serious problem than it is in reality.I don't think oil companies need any pity, but it would be nice to see environmentalists focus on real problems not fake issues like this one. It is because oil companies are involved that there is such intense scrutiny on fracking and none at all on issues like the one that this post discusses.

  4. What is "good news" about deep well frack wastewater injection? That's an "out of sight, out of mind" observation. One of the effects of this may be earthquakes. It's hard to imagine that there can be a good outcome from this toxic wastewater injected underground.

    1. If a good outcome means that the wastewater is injected and stays deep underground for thousands or millions of years then so far so good. That is exactly what appears to be happening. So it isn't that hard to imagine that this is the likely outcome. There are thousands of wastewater disposal wells in this country and only a handful have had problems with small earthquakes (small as in they do no damage on the surface). These wells tend to be shut down immediately as the one in Ohio was. No energy source comes without risk and an environmental downside including wind and solar. Many people like to compare the impacts of gas drilling to doing nothing. Of course it has more impact than doing nothing. Assuming you plan to keep consuming energy, what people need to do is compare the risk, impact and reward of each energy source and then pick the best options. When you do that, shale gas comes out at or near the top. Wind and solar are also very good but also have significant downsides to them. Wind changes the landscape much more than drilling does. People are injured and die erecting windmills and putting solar panels on rooftops. The whooshing of windmills causes some people who live near them to have serious mental health problems. Solar panels use chemicals that can be bad for the environment and have caused serious water pollution in China where most solar panels are made. And of course they are both intermittent sources of energy and need something like gas to back them up.

  5. Don Hopey teaches a class at the University of Pittsburgh on drilling and mining's environmental impact in PA. He structures the class around guest speakers on all sides of the issue; You should contact him to get involved.

  6. You should make sure that even the sewers are clean. This would make it possible for you to have a healthier environment.