Hurricane Sandy’s Filthy Legacy: Sewage - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

Hurricane Sandy’s Filthy Legacy: Sewage

Overflow (an estimated 68 million gallons) released adjacent to the Western Long Island South Shore Estuary. Credit: Doug Kuntz. Overflow (an estimated 68 million gallons) released adjacent to the Western Long Island South Shore Estuary. Credit: Doug Kuntz.

Hurricane Sandy was one of the largest storms to hit the northeast U.S. in recorded history… killing 159… knocking out power to millions and causing $70 billion in damage in eight states.

Sandy also put the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in stark relief by paralyzing subways… trains… road and air traffic… flooding hospitals… crippling electrical substations and shutting down power and water to tens of millions of people. But one of the larger infrastructure failures is less appreciated: sewage overflow

According to Climate Central… six months after Sandy… data from the eight hardest hit states shows that 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into rivers… bays… canals and in some cases… city streets… largely as a result of record storm-surge flooding that swamped the region's major sewage treatment facilities.

To put that in perspective… 11 billion gallons is equal to New York's Central Park stacked 41 feet high with sewage… or more than 50 times the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The vast majority of that sewage flowed into the waters of New York City and northern New Jersey in the days and weeks during and after the storm. 

Climate Central's analysis of sewage-spill data provided by state agencies and individual treatment plant operators shows that:

  • One third of the overflow (3.45 billion gallons) was essentially untreated raw sewage.  The remainder (7.45 billion gallons) was partially treated, meaning that it received at least some level of filtration and… perhaps… chlorination.
  • 94 percent of the spilled sewage… well over 10 billion gallons… was the result of some form of damage caused by coastal flooding. In some cases… Sandy's storm surge simply flooded treatment plants and pumping stations… while in other cases a combination of power outages and flood conditions shuttered facilities or caused major diversions of sewage into receiving waters.
  • 93 percent of the volume of sewage overflows took place in New York (47 percent) and New Jersey (46 percent). Eighteen of the 20 largest spills ended up in New York and New Jersey waters, as did the four individual sewage overflows of more than 1 billion gallons each… two each from New York and New Jersey.
  • The notable exception to storm-surge related sewage discharges was in Washington D.C.…. where instead, rainfall was the main culprit. Sandy produced 5.1 inches of rain in 24 hours… leading to the sixth-largest Sandy-related sewage overflow at 475 million gallons of untreated sewage and contaminated runoff. That was the only rain-related sewage spill in the top 30 overflows. Overall… heavy rainfall caused a reported 776 million gallons of sewage spills to waters in Mid-Atlantic States.

In addition to sewage overflows… Sandy severely damaged numerous treatment plants and pumping stations. Damage to a number of treatment plants kept largely untreated sewage flowing into local waterways for weeks… and in some cases… even months after the storm. The last known Sandy-related sewage overflow took place in January 2013.

Climate Central was unable to estimate the total costs of repairing sewage systems impacted by Sandy… but according to state authorities:

  • The cost of repairing Sandy's damage to sewage treatment plants in New York is nearly $2 billion. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection plans to allocate nearly $1 billion for recovery and repair of facilities, and another $1.7 billion for building resilience into the system. 
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