Western Pennsylvania counties struggle with wildcat sewers
For more than 40 years, raw sewage from Audrey Breckenridge's home flowed through pipes that belched it into the ground near an underground spring on her Herminie property.
Until a new sewage system started operating last month in rural Sewickley Township, many of the town's residents relied on makeshift "wildcat sewers," in which their sewage is piped directly into nearby ditches and streams.
"We live on hills," Breckenridge said of the century-old houses built by a coal company. "Everything runs downhill."
Since the early 1900s, household waste from Herminie's 795 residents has flowed through wildcats into Little Sewickley Creek, township Supervisor Joe Kerber said.
"Damn near everyone in town had one," Kerber said. "In Herminie, 90 percent of the sewage ended up in the creek."
An estimated 27,000 wildcat sewers operate in an 11-county area of Southwestern Pennsylvania, mostly in rural and former industrial areas without public sewage systems, according to a report by the Regional Water Management Task Force at the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics.
The makeshift sewers service about 11,000 homes without septic systems, carrying waste from toilets and kitchen sinks into streams or abandoned coal mines, said Briana Mihok, a senior policy strategist at the institute. Thousands more service farms and businesses.
"I'm not shocked by the number," said John Schombert, executive director of 3 Rivers Wet Weather, a nonprofit organization that helps municipalities with sewage and stormwater problems. "At one time in Allegheny County, it was probably higher than that."
The task force report found:
• Wildcat sewers, malfunctioning septic systems and inadequate treatment plants allow 16 billion gallons of sewage to flow into the region's rivers and watersheds every year.
• An estimated 500,000 people are at risk of serious illness or death from water polluted by raw sewage, which carries parasites and deadly bacteria.
• Abandoned coal mines are filled with sewage and acid mine drainage that has contaminated 2,800 miles of streams in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Fayette, Greene, Washington, Armstrong, Butler, Indiana, Somerset and Beaver counties.
"It's not only aesthetically bad, it's environmentally bad," said Dr. Ellen Uschak, a retired biology professor at Westmoreland County Community College and a member of the Sewickley Creek Watershed Association.
Wildcat sewers were widespread in Allegheny County until the 1980s and remain "a pretty big problem in rural communities" in every surrounding county, Schombert said.
Towns like Etna, Brackenridge and Natrona were built to house workers in the steel and coal industries long before environmental regulations — and sewer systems — existed. Sewage drained into the nearest stream, river or abandoned mine shaft.
Allegheny's problem now is expanding treatment plants and adding holding tanks to prevent sewage from seeping into waterways during periods of heavy rain or snow melt. Estimates to correct the problem run from $3 billion to $8 billion.
In Westmoreland County, wildcat sewers are still in use in many former company towns, such as Hannastown, Crabtree, New Alexandria and Sutersville, said Dan Schmidt, an engineer for the Hempfield Township Municipal Authority and several other municipalities.
"There are a lot, especially in coal towns and in rural areas," said Dana Rizzo, a water-quality education specialist for the Westmoreland Conservation District. "Pick any town in Westmoreland County."
In Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, 22 communities served by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Municipal Authority are plagued by wildcat sewers and stormwater runoff that spew sewage into the Monongahela River, officials said.
Hanover Township, Washington County, received a $6.2 million loan and a $295,000 grant to build 14 miles of collection lines to eliminate wildcat sewer discharges.
Jennifer Halchak, a watershed specialist with the county's Conservation District, said her agency also is working on acid mine drainage leaking from old mines.
"Wildcat sewers are not as large an issue here," she said. "There are enough rural places that you can go without anyone noticing (wildcats)."
Rizzo said human waste can seep out of abandoned mines. "If (mine drainage) comes out, anything else gets out as well," she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 16 million people a year get sick from waterborne illnesses caused by raw sewage. Many more cases go unreported, according to a CDC report.
Raw sewage can carry E. coli bacteria and giardia and cryptosporidium parasites into drinking water, said Uschak of the watershed association.
"A lot of people are getting sick and don't know why," she said. "You get diarrhea and think you got a bug. It could be from raw sewage. It's one of the worst problems in Pennsylvania."
The state Department of Environmental Protection is forcing some municipalities to create sewage authorities or expand treatment plants to handle overflows. The Crabtree Municipal Authority, for example, was formed to handle sewage treatment in portions of Hempfield, Unity and Salem townships.
"Arona was bad enough that there had to be a consent order to clean it up," said Bob Davidson, a member of the Hempfield Township Municipal Authority
Two years ago, Arona Borough and Hempfield entered into a consent order that allowed Arona to connect to the township's system in Andrews Run in the Sewickley Creek Watershed.
New Alexandria is building a sewage system to eliminate a serious problem with waste running into storm drains, Rizzo said.
"Walk past any storm drain in the dead of summer and the smell is absolutely horrible," she said.
The Arona project was completed recently through state and federal grants and low-interest loans approved before that financial well went dry.
The 1972 Clean Water Act first provided grants to municipalities to install sewers and build treatment plants, which the Reagan administration later replaced with low-interest loans. But in the current economy, it could take years for communities to get funding for such projects, officials said.
"There's absolutely no state or federal money coming in at this point. Zero," said Schombert.
Allegheny and Westmoreland counties will feel the pinch.
"It's going to be very expensive and take a very long time to get public sewers" in Westmoreland, Rizzo said. "There are places in really rural areas that may never get public sewers."
The only financing available is low-interest loans for sewer and stormwater system construction from PennVEST, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development finances sewage and water projects, but little money is available for grants, said Dawn Knepp, a spokeswoman in Harrisburg.Additional Information:
At a glance
• Waterborne illnesses are carried by raw sewage.
• The sewage carries E. coli bacteria, the giardia parasite and the cryptosporidium germ, which can cause diarrhea, gastroenteritis, vomiting, nausea, cramps and skin infections.
• Contaminated water can carry hepatitis viruses, which can lead to kidney and liver failure, stomach and colon cancer, even death.
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency and American Rivers, Risks of Untreated Sewage.