In 2018, sewer lines across Greensboro released more than 3.5 million gallons of untreated sewage onto roads and into waterways. This led to 64 untreated sewage discharges, also known as sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) that year. So far in 2019, there have been 13 SSOs—10 in January and three in February—which included over 21,000 gallons of untreated sewage.
The largest overflows in 2018 occurred in September and October and came as a result of the massive amounts of rainfall caused by Hurricanes Florence and Michael. The two hurricanes caused more than three million gallons of untreated sewage to overflow throughout Greensboro.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website, SSO’s can, “contaminate our waters, causing serious water quality problems, and back-up into homes, causing property damage and threatening public health.” The EPA estimates at least “23,000 to 75,000 SSO’s per year” happen all throughout the United States.
In the 2013 report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the oldest national engineering society in the country, North Carolina was given the grading of C on wastewater infrastructure. In this same category, the country as a whole scored a D plus in 2017.
“North Carolina has documented a need of over $4 billion of additional wastewater infrastructure investment needs through the year 2030,” the report stated. “These funds are needed to replace aging facilities, comply with mandated Clean Water Act regulations, and provide as well as keep pace with economic development.”
The report also stated that in order for the country’s wastewater infrastructure to “meet current and future demands,” $271 billion would be needed.
According to city data, there are over 1,600 miles of sewer lines and around 40,000 manholes in Greensboro. The 64 incidents and 3.5 millions gallons of discharges that occurred in 2018 were higher than those in 2017—51 discharges and 91,000 gallons—and in 2016—41 discharges and 794,000 gallons. Cities like Winston-Salem and Durham had 65 and 24 spills respectively during the 2017-18 fiscal year. A graph given by the city. however, shows a decreasing trend in sewer overflows per 100 miles since 2011.
Almost a quarter of the discharges in 2018 were the cause of grease buildup in the sewer lines. The second and third most frequent causes were debris and roots.
“On Battleground Avenue where we have a lot of businesses that have services, it can produce grease,” said Mike Borchers, the assistant director of Greensboro’s water resources department, to the Triad City Beat. “Sometimes the grease traps don’t work or aren’t maintained properly. The grease can clog up the line and when it gets into the system, it can congeal. It comes from homes too. That’s why we tell people not to dump grease down drains.”
Borchers says that most of the discharges come out of manholes, spilling onto the street. State law requires overflows of over 1,000 gallons to be reported within 24 hours and for overflows that get into water sources such as streams, rivers or surface water have to be reported within 24 hours, regardless of how much spillage there was. Each report includes things like the number of gallons released, date, location, cause of discharge and areas affected. The equipment that was used to treat the discharge is also reported.
Employees respond quickly to discharge reports and address the issue immediately according to Borchers.
Other environmental impacts of sewage include hypoxia, which is decreased oxygen in water, algal blooms, habitat degradation and impacts to wildlife. Raw sewage contains disease-causing pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, and protozoa which can cause illnesses such as the stomach flu. The EPA lists ways in which people can be exposed to raw sewage on their website.
Borchers says the likelihood of residents getting sick from the excess discharges is minimal.
“We try to be as proactive as we can,” said Borchers. “Our goal is not to have any SSOs. It’s not our intention nor do we want them. We want to thank our customers for their patience and understanding as we move forward to address these issues.”