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San Diego Spill Points to Problems With Nation's Sewage Systems

By Scott ArmstrongStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 11, 1992



LOS ANGELES

AMERICA'S plumbing system is getting a fresh look in the wake of the huge sewage spill off San Diego.

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Many don't like what they see.

"There are literally billions of gallons of raw sewage pouring into estuaries, rivers, and coastal areas every day," says Suzanne Iudicello of the Center for Marine Conservation, a Washington, D.C., group.

Some 180 million gallons of partially treated sewage has been flowing into waters off San Diego daily as a result of a ruptured pipe. Levels of possibly harmful bacteria are reportedly running high along 20 miles of coastline.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has recommended that sewage passing through the treatment plant be treated with chlorine. Local marine biologists worry that the chemical could harm marine life.

While experts differ on what the ecological impact will be, environmental groups believe the spectacle serves as an alarm bell for the nation's aging, overburdened sewage systems - particularly in urban coastal areas.

San Diego's system, built 29 years ago to serve a population of about 250,000 but which now serves 1.7 million, has been under attack for years.

Ninety-five percent of the public sewage systems across the country meet federal standards governing waste treatment. But that leaves some 130 that don't - including those in such major cities as San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston.

Even many of those that do often have mechanical problems or are overwhelmed during storms and sudden surges.

The Center for Marine Conservation, for instance, estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 outfall pipes along US coasts that regularly spew raw sewage into the ocean during rain storms.

"The San Diego spill should point up that antiquated systems need to be upgraded," says Michael Paparian of the Sierra Club in Sacramento, Calif.

Engineers say it could take six to eight weeks to fix the huge pipe that began gushing effluent into shallow waters last week. Usually, the sluice carries treated sewage, from which 80 percent of the solid material has been removed, to a point 2.2 miles offshore where it is released in 220 feet of water.

Releasing it so close to shore is what poses a problem. To help reduce the outflow, San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor is urging residents to conserve water, including limiting showers to three minutes and cutting down on toilet flushings. Several miles of beach have been closed.

Gov. Pete Wilson has declared a state of emergency, which will help free up funds to pay for the estimated $10 million in repairs. The EPA has given about half the cost of repair.

The usual fingerpointing has surfaced. Engineers warned city officials two years ago that the reinforced concrete pipe was corroded and could cause a spill. While city officials acknowledge that caution flags were waved, they dispute that the rupture was caused by corrosion. They attribute it to a settling of the ocean floor coupled with strong ocean currents during recent low tides.

Differences also exist over the impact of the spill. Initially, some scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., said it would be an environmental "disaster."

But others are far less apocalyptic. Alan Mearns, an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, says if the pipe is fixed within a few weeks "I wouldn't get very excited about it."

He says the sewage is "pretty high quality" compared to the old days and that the turbid cooler waters of winter better diffuse the offending waste. The big concern is the kelp, which acts as a marine jungle, harboring crabs, lobster, and other species. Nutrients in the effluent will stimulate kelp growth, but too much growth will kill the marine plants.

"The long-term impacts are going to be negligible," says Mia Tegner, a marine biologist at Scripps. "The kelp forest is a resilient ecosystem."

The political fallout may be more noticeable. Under the federal Clean Water Act, all major cities are required to institute "secondary treatment" of sewage, which removes most of the solids. But loopholes in the law and official waivers have allowed some sanitation districts to skirt full requirements.