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If the sewer's broke, better fix it

Alaska's shutdown grabbed headlines, but Insituform CEO Thomas Rooney says aging sewer pipes are a bigger problem.

As bad as they are, the corroding Alaskan oil pipelines are far from the worst we've seen. Of course, you might never know it from the headlines accompanying the pipeline shutdown.

As the president and CEO of a company that repairs more oil, water and sewer pipes than any other business around the world, I found myself talking to many print and electronic reporters who wanted to know the inside story of the Alaskan pipes.

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

The oil pipe situation received a lot of attention. But remember this:

• No one died.

• No one got sick.

• No pristine land was despoiled.

That's what can happen when sewer systems decay, of course. Even the worst Alaskan oil pipe is in better shape than your average city sewer pipe. Say what you will about oil spills, but they are usually small and in remote places where damage to human life, property, and wildlife is minimal. I've seen enough of both to know:

Crude oil is cleaner and less toxic than sewage. And oil spills are a lot less common. Yet oil gets all the ink, while sewage escapes scrutiny.

Crude oil is much cleaner and less toxic than sewage. And oil spills are a lot 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 have suffered their worst sewer spills in decades, if not their entire history.

Billions of dollars have been spent on cleanup, remediation and health care costs related to these spills--all for one reason: Sewer pipes get old, eroded, broken and even corroded to the point of nonexistence. And there are almost a million miles of them in this country alone.

Earlier this year in Hawaii, 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, made many people sick and even caused one death. If they are not watching sewer pipes in Hawaii, do you think your town is any better?

A recent study coordinated by the University of California at Los Angeles and Stanford University concluded that water polluted with sewage sickens 1.5 million people a year in Southern California alone. It causes so many health problems that it would be cheaper to spend billions on new pipelines today than to pay out even more billions of dollars on medical bills tomorrow.

Detroit has the same kind of problems, except that all of 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 and Oregon are reporting the worst sewer spills ever. In fact, Louisiana's sewers are in worse shape than the levees and present the greatest threat to health in the state.

Bad sewer pipes are a problem we can no longer ignore. And it will only get worse. Most sewer pipes, which were built 60 years ago, were intended to last 50 years. What's more, not enough people pay attention until the pipes break.

Then it is too late.

In a few months, the oil will again be flowing in Alaska, and the spill will be largely forgotten. But sewer pipes across the country are still on the brink of catastrophic--even fatal--collapse. Not in the wilds of Alaska but right below your feet and near a source of drinking water.