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Pittsburgh's Sewage Woes Echo National Problem

A murky purple haze leaks from an overflowing sewage outlet near a food processing plant on the Allegheny River.
Anne Hawke, NPR
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A murky purple haze leaks from an overflowing sewage outlet near a food processing plant on the Allegheny River.
A discarded cotton swab released from a sewer outlet floats on a back channel of the Allegheny River.
Anne Hawke, NPR /
/
A discarded cotton swab released from a sewer outlet floats on a back channel of the Allegheny River.

The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a short-term fix for a staggeringly expensive problem: Every year, more than 850 billion gallons of sewage flows into the nations rivers, lakes and bays. Fixing the problem is staggeringly expensive.

Pittsburgh is among the cities with overburdened sewage treatment plants and crumbling pipes that can't handle the sheer volume of sewage flowing through them. What they can't treat is dumped straight into open bodies of water.

For years, the EPA has been prodding -- and suing -- hundreds of cities to fix their problems. But the costs are high. Pittsburgh's tab could reach $3 billion. The federal government refuses to pay the bills. So, the EPA has given the cities some slack, allowing them years to plot solutions and decades to implement them.

But some scientists say giving cities too much leeway could be dangerous to public health.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.