Aged, damaged sewer lines threaten clean water

Calvin Bush had "a river of raw sewage" running along the property line of his North Brainerd home after tree roots grew into a neighbor's sewer line leading to the street.

"She had Roto-Rooter come out, but it didn't work long," said Mr. Bush, who has lived on Gayle Drive for 37 years. "Then someone came out again, and then it started running in the yard again."

Raw sewage ran along the ground and into the street for about a year, he said.

"It got so bad it would run along the street and pool," he said. "I would drive around it, rather than through it. And I made (my grandsons) leave the grass growing there so it wouldn't get on the lawnmower tires or their shoes."

Finally, many months of calls to the city, Mr. Bush called the newspaper and a TV station this spring. That got attention, he said, and a city contractor arrived to bring some help. The ultimate problem? Someone had left the cap off the clean-up pipe on his neighbor's sewer line.

Most people take for granted every day that the water from kitchen taps and the vegetables from home gardens or stores will be clean and safe.

But if sewer pipes lying beneath local streets and yards are damaged or broken, there's potential for serious problems, say health, environmental and utility officials.

Because pipes carrying fresh, clean water often lie in the same ditches, tunnels and infrastructure rights of way as sewer lines, there is tremendous potential for drinking water or irrigation water to be contaminated.

"Your water can be contaminated right out in the street in front of you," said Dr. Mark LeChevallier, director of innovation and environment stewardship for American Water Co., the parent company of Tennessee-American Water Co., which serves Chattanooga.

Dr. Rand Carpenter, an epidemiologist and waterborne illness specialist with the Tennessee Department of Heath, says once that contamination is there, all it takes is contact and an unwashed hand.

Sewage contains pathogens, bacteria and viruses, he said, and if people touch something bearing those germs, they can get sick.

"These are big concerns to us in the health department," he said.

Emerging strains of E. coli have proven very dangerous, especially to the young, the elderly or people whose immune systems are deficient.

Even a norovirus, "what we grew up calling the 24-hour virus," can be a culprit of contamination that began with sewage, Dr. Carpenter said.


Government officials increasingly are raising alarms about water and sewer lines that are decades or even a century old.

A 2009 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report states that 75 percent of the country's water distribution network's iron-based piping is older than 25 years and about half is older than 50 years.

In March 2009, a 50-year-old sewage collection tank collapsed in Monteagle, Tenn., dumping 1 million gallons of raw sewage into a creek leading to the Elk River and resulting in "boil water" advisories for towns using the Elk as a drinking water source.

Add high rains and stormwater runoff to aging pipes and the result is a recipe for trouble. The worst infrastructure failures - often the result of flooding - have the potential to impact hundreds of homes at once.

Flooding in September 2009 in North Georgia and Southeast Tennessee left Trion, Ga., with a partially flooded drinking-water treatment plant and a completely flooded sewage treatment plant. The town spent days with no water at all and weeks under a "boil water" alert.

Toccoa, Ga., with breaks in major water lines, also was put on a "boil water" alert after the flooding, and manholes from Red Bank's sewer system overflowed onto Lyndon Avenue, washing into streets and yards.

In January, heavy rain and an electrical short combined to knock out pumps at a Chattanooga stormwater holding facility that is part of the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant. The result was an 18-hour, 137-million-gallon spill of untreated sewage that poured into the Tennessee River.

Though downstream of Chattanooga's drinking water intakes, the spill contributed to high levels of fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in water samples at South Pittsburg's drinking water intakes.

South Pittsburg stepped up sampling and increased the chlorine in its treatment system, officials said.

Chattanooga officials also have said some of the overflow, running onto grassy play areas of Coolidge Park, would require an estimated $40,000 in street and park cleanup.

Early May flooding in West and Middle Tennessee, especially Nashville, prompted 16 boil-water advisories in 12 counties.

In some cases, the contamination from flooding doesn't wash away quickly.

Signs warning "Do not wade, swim or fish because of fecal bacteria contamination" are posted on North Market Creek that flows through Chattanooga's Renaissance Park, along with Chattanooga Creek near St. Elmo, on Stringer's Branch in Red Bank, along Citico Creek in East Chattanooga and on Oostanaula Creek in the Veterans Park of Athens, Tenn.

Those creeks - among about 40 in East Tennessee alone - all are polluted by failed sewer or septic tanks, according to officials.

Dr. Carpenter said it was "reassuring" that during Chattanooga's January sewage spill, the water treatment plant was upstream and operating well so the city had no contamination in its drinking water.

But sometimes residents aren't so lucky, and that's when whole-house water filters with ultraviolet or reverse osmosis treatments come in handy. Refrigerator water filters are not as effective, he said.

Personal sanitation is important, too, he said. Hand washing and hand sanitizers are two ways to lessen chances for illness.

"I think it's interesting to look at the rivers as a whole," he said. "In Nashville (as in Chattanooga), our drinking water is drawn upstream of where our wastewater comes out. But there are other towns and cities downstream. And, of course, we're downstream from somebody. ... So be careful what you dump in your stormwater drains."

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