Where there’s a problem, there’s a lawsuit. And following Superstorm Sandy, one subject of litigation is sewage. CBS New York (Channel 2) reports that residents of Baldwin, N.Y., are suing Nassau County for an alleged failure to properly establish and maintain its sewage treatment system, after Sandy forced sewage-laden water to a depth of four or five feet in their homes (“Baldwin Residents To Sue Over Raw Sewage During Sandy”).

  • Workers this week replacing pumps at the Bay Park sewage-treatment plant in East Rockaway, N.Y., on Long Island, that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

    Credit: New York Times

    Workers this week replacing pumps at the Bay Park sewage-treatment plant in East Rockaway, N.Y., on Long Island, that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

On December 5, CBS reported that some Long Island residents were still struggling to manage raw sewage pollution in their homes (“Sewage still plagues Long Island home five weeks after Sandy”). Bay Park, N.Y., resident Larry Villegas told CBS News reporter Carolyn Gusoff that raw sewage backed up into his house for ten days after the storm.

Aging and overstressed, sewer systems throughout the country are often overwhelmed by weather events. In many urban areas, systems are designed to funnel stormwater runoff into the same pipes as sewage, directing both flows to sewage treatment plants. When there’s too much rain, the plants can’t handle the sudden extra flow, and untreated sewage, mixed with runoff from roofs, streets, and parking lots, gets dumped into rivers, streams, and bays.

But in New Jersey, Sandy’s impact amounted to more than an emergency backup or overflow: the storm did lasting damage to major sewage treatment facilities, reports the Newark Star-Ledger (“Hurricane Sandy delivered a body blow to N.J. sewage plants,” by Jarrett Renshaw.

  • A worker washing out the bottom of the settling tanks so repairs can begin. Less than 30 minutes after Hurricane Sandy hit, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water.

    Credit: New York Tiimes

    A worker washing out the bottom of the settling tanks so repairs can begin. Less than 30 minutes after Hurricane Sandy hit, engines for the plant’s main pumping system were under 12 feet of water.

“In a nightmare scenario the state’s aging infrastructure was not prepared to handle, … devastation took place up and down the New Jersey coast, allowing more than a billion gallons of untreated sewage to pour into the state’s waterways over the course of several days,” the paper says. “The cost to repair the damage and replace facilities will come to hundreds of millions of dollars and take years to complete. And in the near future, a torrential rain could pose a flooding problem to plants not completely back on their feet.”

But according to a report in the North Jersey Record, the billion gallons released during Sandy was a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s routine pollution problem, year in and year out (“Staggering cost of repairs allows sewage to foul N.J. waterways,” by James M. O’Neill). “While the event was dramatic, it was not unique,” says the paper. “More than 23 billion gallons of raw sewage and other pollutants pour into New Jersey’s rivers and bays each year because aging sewer systems are overwhelmed during heavy rains. The raw sewage and toxic waste — enough to fill the Oradell Reservoir nearly seven times over — spill from 217 outfall pipes into the Passaic, Hackensack, Hudson and other rivers and bays, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The overflows occur dozens of times each year, whenever there’s a significant rainfall.”

Judith Enck, regional administrator for the Federal Environmental Protection Agency, wrote to New Jersey environmental officials last year: ““The discharge of raw sewage and other contaminants into water bodies is one of the most serious threats to water quality facing the state of New Jersey.” Enck told the Record: ““The release of large quantities of raw sewage into New Jersey waters is a serious problem that needs to be solved sooner rather than later. It has dragged on for too long.