By CHARLES DUHIGG
Published: November 22, 2009
It was drizzling lightly in late October when the midnight shift started at the Owls Head Water Pollution Control Plant, where much of Brooklyn’s sewage is treated.
That caused a rising tide throughout Brooklyn’s sewers, and untreated feces and industrial waste started spilling from emergency relief valves into the Upper New York Bay and Gowanus Canal.
“It happens anytime you get a hard rainfall,” said Bob Connaughton, one the plant’s engineers. “Sometimes all it takes is 20 minutes of rain, and you’ve got overflows across Brooklyn.”
One goal of the Clean Water Act of 1972 was to upgrade the nation’s sewer systems, many of them built more than a century ago, to handle growing populations and increasing runoff of rainwater and waste. During the 1970s and 1980s, Congress distributed more than $60 billion to cities to make sure that what goes into toilets, industrial drains and street grates would not endanger human health.
But despite those upgrades, many sewer systems are still frequently overwhelmed, according to a New York Times analysis of environmental data. As a result, sewage is spilling into waterways.
In the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000
sewage systems — including those in major cities — have reported
violating the law by dumping untreated or partly treated human waste,
chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and
elsewhere, according to data from state environmental agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever
fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators, the Times