17,000 Olympic-Size Swimming Pools Full of Raw Sewage—Thanks, Superstorm Sandy

More than 11 billion gallons of foul-smelling awfulness was released into Northeast waterways.

Six months after the landfall of Superstorm Sandy, an American flag hangs over an empty plot of land in the Breezy Point section of Queens, New York. Eleven billion pounds of Hurricane Sandy sewage was dumped into east coast waterways in the days after the storm. (Photo: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

May 8, 2013· 2 MIN READ
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison Fairbrother has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Six months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the northeastern United States, a new report identifies just how foul a mess the storm left in its wake.

“People that were not physically harmed in the storm could be physically harmed from cleaning up after the storm.”

Data collected by Climate Central, a nonprofit research group, shows that 11 billion gallons of Hurricane Sandy sewage overflowed into rivers, lakes, coastal waters and city streets in eight states in the storm’s aftermath.

One third of the overflow, or 3.45 billion gallons, was raw, untreated sewage—a mix of human feces, stormwater, and contaminants. The rest was partially treated sewage, meaning it may have received some filtration.

New York and New Jersey were the hardest hit by sewage, according to Climate Central’s interactive graphic. Most of the overflow was caused by Sandy’s storm surge, a 14-foot rise in water level that inundated sewage treatment plants. High levels of rainfall also played a role, particularly in Washington, D.C., where rainfall caused 475 million gallons of sewage to spill into the Anacostia River. In other states, power outages contributed to the damage.

Combined, these factors led to skyrocketing levels of sewage gushing into homes and bubbling up in waterways. The 11 billion gallons of sewage that resulted from Sandy would fill 17,000 Olympic-size swimming pools, according to Climate Central.

Sandy’s sewage spills should be a wake-up call, Dr. Alyson Kenward, the lead author of the report, told TakePart.

“Much like with other infrastructure issues that are threatened by climate change, these problems are only going to continue to arise and will likely happen more frequently in the future,” Kenward said.

Many of the nation’s sewage treatment plants are in low-lying areas, making them particularly vulnerable to frequent floods and damage caused by sea-level rise. Climate change could cause untreated sewage to increasingly flow into areas surrounding large coastal cities, putting public health at risk.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly seven million people are afflicted annually with mild to moderate illnesses as a result of contact with untreated sewage. An additional half million people become seriously ill. Those estimates may be low, according to American Rivers, because many people who get sick don’t report their symptoms to health officials.

Shortly after Sandy hit, Waterkeeper groups from New York and New Jersey began reporting signs of massive sewage spills, and warning that the threats posed by the storm would be long-lasting.

“People that were not physically harmed in the storm could be physically harmed from cleaning up after the storm,” Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan told TakePart in November 2012. “They have to be aware when they are cleaning up from the disaster that their health is at risk.”

Although drinking water was secured from sewage overflows very quickly, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued advisories about swimming, boating, and consuming fish and shellfish from waters that had been contaminated. Many of those advisories remained in effect for weeks or months after the storm.

In April 2013, Governor Chris Christie finally reopened the last of New Jersey’s shellfish beds that had closed as a result of the superstorm—nearly six months after Sandy hammered the state.

To deter a future public health disaster, some sewage treatment plants are planning upgrades. For many facilities, the damage and repair costs from Sandy are larger than those facilities’ annual operating budgets.

In New Jersey, $1 billion has been set aside to repair facilities, and $1.7 billion has been allocated to make improvements to the systems that may help mitigate the impacts of the next superstorm to wallop the coast. Improvements include raising water pumps and generators off the ground to make them less susceptible to power loss during storms. Other facilities are looking at installing watertight gates.

“Trying to protect the sewage treatment facilities and make them more resilient is necessary and more economical in the long run than simply having to make repairs every time something happens,” Kenward said.