Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bad as they are, the corroding Alaskan oil pipelines are far from the worst in America, though you might never know it from the recent headlines. I discovered this recently in the media aftermath of the pipeline shutdown.

As president and chief executive officer of a company that repairs more oil, water and sewer pipes than any other company around the world, I found myself talking to print and electronic reporters from across the country who wanted to know the inside story of the Alaskan pipes.

Some were just a tad disappointed when I reminded them the pipeline was shut down because of potential, not actual problems and would probably be back in service within a few months. And crude oil prices were already headed back down.

The oil pipes received a lot of attention. But remember: No one died. No one got sick. No pristine land was despoiled. It will cost us some money.

But only a few people are talking about the broken pipes really do hurt our environment, get people sick, cause deaths and cost us even more money than oil pipeline shutdowns. Those are sewer pipes, of course. Even the worst Alaskan oil pipe is in better shape than the average city sewer pipe.

Say what you will about oil spills, but they are usually small and in remote areas where damage to human life, property and wildlife is minimal at most. But I’ve seen enough of both to know this: Crude oil is much cleaner and less toxic than sewage. And oil spills are much less common. Yet oil gets all the ink, while sewage escapes scrutiny.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported 73,000 sewage spills in America. Over the last several months, more than a dozen places in this country alone have had the worst sewer spills in decades, if not their history. Billions have been spent for clean-up, remediation and health-care costs because of these spills and for one reason: sewer pipes that are old, eroded, broken, even corroded to the point of nonexistence. There are almost 1 million miles of them in America alone.

In Hawaii, earlier this year, 50 million gallons of raw sewage spilled from broken pipes onto the most beautiful beaches in the world. It put an entire economy out of business, sickened many and even caused one death. If they are not watching sewer pipes in Hawaii, do you think your town is any better?

A study by the University of California-Los Angeles and Stanford University says water polluted with sewage sickens 1.5 million people a year in Southern California alone. So many health problems result that it would be cheaper to spend billions on new pipelines today rather than even more billions on medical bills tomorrow.

Detroit has the same kind of problems, except all its sewage discharges go into the Great Lakes, a source of drinking water for tens of millions of people.

The headlines tell the story, but no one is connecting the dots: Cities in North Carolina, Maryland, California, Texas, Louisiana, Washington, Oregon and lots of other places are reporting the worst sewer spills ever. In Louisiana, the sewers are in worse shape than the levees and present the greatest threat to health there.

In Texas recently, a sink hole caused by a rotting sewer pipe is the chief suspect in the disappearance of a small boy reported missing after playing near the hole.

Bad sewer pipes are a problem we can no longer ignore. And it will only get worse for these two simple reasons:

(1) Most sewer pipes were built 60 years ago and only intended to last 50 years.

(2) Not enough people pay attention until they break. Then it is too late.

A few months from now the oil will flow again in Alaska. The spill will be largely forgotten. Meanwhile, sewer pipes across the country are on the brink of catastrophic — even fatal — collapse. Not in the wilds of Alaska but right below your feet right now, right next to a source of drinking water, a playground, a lake or a beach near you.

Thomas Rooney is president of the largest oil and sewer pipe repair company in the world, Insituform Technologies, a publicly traded company with $700 million in sales and 2,500 employees.

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