If you needed any more evidence to attest to the fact that Sandy was a real bitch, Climate Central released a study today showing where the storm overwhelmed the city’s sewage treatment facilities. The findings are horrifying: 11 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were dumped into the water, with six sewage spills larger than 100 million gallons in New York City alone.
The main issue the report unveiled was just how vulnerable our sewage treatment plants are to coastal storms in the first place. “Our sewage infrastructure isn’t built to withstand such surges, and we are putting our property, safety and lives at risk if we don’t adequately plan for these challenges,” report author Dr. Alyson Kenward said. The report recommended measures like elevating pumps, making watertight doors, and creating emergency backup plans as ways to safeguard a sewage system that will face more frequent extremes.
While report authors commended the Department of Environmental protection for their quick, pro-active efforts to stem the literal tide of shit, their findings highlighted the fact that the storm surge was too overwhelming to halt–the surge caused 94 percent of sewage overflows from Sandy. “Sewage treatment plants are usually placed near water in low-lying areas so that sewage can be piped to the plant via gravity and treated sewage can be easily discharged into receiving waters,” the report noted. “These key factors in plant locations make them especially vulnerable to storm surges and coastal flooding.”
The largest spill at the Bay Park Treatment Plant on Long Island is a prime example of flooding shutting down an already-susceptible system. From the report:
The storm left this coastal plant completely out of operation for at least 42 hours after the storm. Since the tidal flooding was so severe, operators were unable to provide even conservative estimates as to the amount of non-salt water that escaped the plant. However, based on average daily flows through the plant, we estimate that at least 104 million gallons of untreated sewage overflowed into Rockaway Channel. After the first 42 hours, treatment levels came back online slowly. It took until December 21 (44 days) for secondary treatment to be fully restored. During that time, we estimate that as many as 2.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage flowed into that channel, and out into Hewlett Bay.
Climate Central’s Dr. Ben Strauss put the severity of the findings squarely in the context of climate change. Since 1880, the eight inches of sea level rise we’ve witnessed can make or break a storm’s level of destruction, Strauss said. “Just a few extra inches could mean the difference to flood a family’s basement — or New York City’s subway system, disabling it for months,” he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee as early as April of last year. “You might think of it this way: raising the floor of a basketball court would mean a lot more dunks.”
Climate Central also released a neat widget that allows you to see which sewage treatment facilities had the biggest spills. It’s fun to play with, but don’t underestimate the public health threat the leaks represent: Contaminated waterways dramatically increase the risk that pathogens and bacteria can make their way into our bodies through drinking water, contaminated shellfish, or just regular contact with the stagnant water itself.