What's Floating in the River - 13 WTHR Indianapolis

13 Investigates

What's Floating in the River

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Raw, untreated sewage pours into Fall Creek. Raw, untreated sewage pours into Fall Creek.
A boy swims in the White River less than 24 hours after the river was polluted by multiple sewer overflows. A boy swims in the White River less than 24 hours after the river was polluted by multiple sewer overflows.
This water sample taken from the White River contained 39,726 colonies of E-coli bacteria. This water sample taken from the White River contained 39,726 colonies of E-coli bacteria.
Mark Jacob says sewer rates will jump dramatically over the next decade to reduce the number of sewer overflows in Indianapolis. Mark Jacob says sewer rates will jump dramatically over the next decade to reduce the number of sewer overflows in Indianapolis.
Investigative reporter Bob Segall visits a combined sewer overflow point under downtown Indy to show where the problem originates. Investigative reporter Bob Segall visits a combined sewer overflow point under downtown Indy to show where the problem originates.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Human waste is being dumped straight into local rivers and streams and 13 Investigates has the video to prove it. As part of a six-month investigation, Bob Segall travels beneath the city to show you the source of this dirty problem, the mind-boggling amount of pollution involved, and the staggering price you'll pay -- every month -- to fix it.

Indianapolis - It's a rainy fall morning and the White River looks particularly murky.

There's good reason.

The dark, sludgy stuff that's floating down the river is coming straight from someone's toilet.

Dirty little secret?

No.

Indianapolis and more than 100 other Indiana towns openly admit they dump human waste into scenic rivers and streams.

But 13 Investigates found few people know how, when or why this problem is happening. And like most other Hoosiers, you probably don't realize how much raw sewage is being dumped and the huge price you'll be paying to bring the problem under control.

Overflow!

Outdated sewers are to blame for the massive problem.

Indianapolis and many other Midwestern cities built their sewer system almost 100 years ago. Back then, sewers were designed to handle both wastewater from your home and storm water from the street together in the same sewer pipes. The "combined sewer" lines lead to each city's wastewater treatment plant, and they work well -- as long as it doesn't rain.

But during a rainstorm, hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater quickly rush into the combined sewers. To prevent the treatment plant from being overwhelmed, stormwater and raw sewage are dumped into local rivers and streams through relief tunnels that were built into the system. The dumping is called a "combined sewer overflow" or CSO, and Indianapolis is one of the nation's top CSO perpetrators.

Mind-boggling numbers

Each year, the city of Indianapolis dumps between six and seven billion -- that's billion with a B! -- gallons of raw, untreated waste into Eagle Creek, Fall Creek, Pleasant Run, Pogues Run and the White River.

(Six to seven billion of anything is hard to imagine, so think about this: To transport 6.5 billion gallons of gasoline, you'd need a line of gasoline tanker trucks stretching bumper-to-bumper from Indianapolis to Honolulu -- and back again!)

The dumping takes place about 60 times each year at more than 130 locations throughout Marion County.

"I see ‘em all the time," said Tom White, a senior project manager with the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. "Anytime it rains more than a quarter of an inch, these combined sewers can overflow and I see hundreds of them a year."

The dumping occurs statewide in large communities like Muncie, Anderson and Fort Wayne, and in smaller towns like Noblesville, Brownsburg and Plainfield. All together, about 40 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow are dumped into Indiana waterways each year.

Floatables

In some cases, sewage is slightly treated to kill bacteria and to remove floatables from the wastewater.

What are floatables?

"Exactly what you can imagine floatables are, that's what they are. Things that are floating in the sewage," explained Mark Jacob, a wastewater engineering consultant who works with the city of Indianapolis and its DPW Clean Stream Team.

But in most cases, what's coming out of CSO pipes is raw, untreated waste -- floatables and all.

Environmentalist Dick Van Frank took 13 Investigates for a walk along Fall Creek to point out the many floatables he sees first hand.

"You can see diapers, toilet paper, condoms, feminine hygiene products; anything you find in sewage, you can find it along the banks and, at times, hanging in the brush along the creek," Van Frank said as he pointed to debris littering the bank. "It's a public health menace."

That menace is something Leon Bates discovered as a child.

While playing along Fall Creek, Bates and his friends discovered large sewer pipes that were spewing liquid into the creek.

"It smelled so bad, you didn't even want breathe in," Bates recalls.

Forty years later, those CSO pipes are doing the same thing, and in late summer, nearby residents still have to battle the odor.

"It shouldn't smell like this. We shouldn't have this problem," Bates said in August, standing beside one of 26 CSO pipes along Fall Creek. "This is not safe and it's not healthy, and there's no excuse to do it."

Stay out of the water

The smell is not the biggest concern.

City officials admit river water can be dangerous after a combined sewage overflow.

Signs along many area rivers warn residents that swimming or playing in the water can make them sick, while other signs encourage fishermen to avoid eating fish caught from the waters. To provide additional warnings during wet weather, the city offers a "raw sewage overflow warning" to anyone who signs up for the automated e-mail notification service.

Despite the warnings, 13 Investigates found families fishing, playing and swimming in the White River and along Fall Creek, unaware of any danger.

How serious is the danger?

In September, 13 Investigates gathered a water sample from the edge of the White River to find out.

The sample was taken immediately downstream from a CSO tunnel that was actively dumping sewage into the river.

According to state and federal health agencies, the sample should contain no more than 235 colonies of E-coli bacteria. Anything higher means the water is unsafe for full body contact (and even more unsafe for ingestion).

A state-certified water quality lab analyzed the river water, and test results show the 100 milliliter sample contained 39,726 colonies of E-coli bacteria.

"That means there is a lot of waste in the water," said ESG Laboratory director Bruce Peavler. "Don't go in the water. Don't play in the water ... it may be not unlike playing in your own toilet."

Digesting E-coli can cause severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and fever, and can be especially dangerous for young children and the elderly.

While large rainstorms can cause a huge volume of raw sewage and E-coli to be dumped into area rivers, the sewage and bacteria is diluted by the rush of storm water that accompanies wastewater through the combined sewer system. City officials say that dilution helps reduce the health risk to anyone who comes into contact with a river or stream following a big rainstorm, but they recommend residents stay away from the water.

"I wouldn't want my children swimming in the White River at this point and time," admitted Indianapolis DPW director David Sherman. "Kids see steams and they want to play in them. The problem is the sewage, it's got to go somewhere and it's hitting our streams and rivers in about 130 places around the city."

The sewage also depletes oxygen levels in the water, creating a dangerous problem for fish. CSOs have resulted in fish kills in several Indiana rivers and streams.

The big dig

Indianapolis, like many other Indiana cities, has a plan to greatly reduce its number of combined sewer overflows.

Over the next 17 years, engineers will install a series of massive storage tunnels under the city. Those tunnels will stretch 17 miles - from 34th Street down to the Southport water treatment plant - and during heavy rains, they will allow the city to store sewage instead of dumping it into rivers.

"Indianapolis will capture 95- to 97-percent of the overflow volume that was going to the streams and take it to the treatment plant," said Jacob. "It's a very exciting project to be part of."

Instead of dumping sewage into local waterways 60 times a year, Indianapolis could see that number drop to only four sewer overflows per year, once the tunnel projects are completed in 2025.

The CSO improvement plan comes with a high price tag and, of course, you get to pay for it.

DPW officials say Indianapolis residents have historically enjoyed some of the lowest sewer bills in the Midwest.

That is about to end.

Paying the price

To pay for the deep tunnels and other improvements that will help reduce Indianapolis' combined sewer overflows, the cost is an estimated $3.5 billion.

For Marion County residents, it means the average $15 sewer portion of a current water bill is expected to jump to $100 each month.

"Sewer rates are going up," Jacob said. "There's just no way around that."

The rate increase - and the CSO improvements - are now mandatory because Indianapolis entered into a legal agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

For decades, the EPA tried to persuade communities to address the problem of combined sewer overflows.

Cities like Milwaukee and Chicago built their deep tunnel systems in the 1980s and 1990s, and they received millions of dollars in federal grants to do so.

Indianapolis did not, and federal clean water grants have largely dried up.

"For many years, the city had no interest in solving the problem and, in fact, they didn't want to solve the problem," Van Frank said. "During Mayor Hudnut's administration, the CSO problem could have been solved for millions instead of billions, and he made the decision it was too expensive."

Facing high fines and both local and federal lawsuits, Indianapolis eventually submitted a long-term control plan that was approved by the EPA. That cleared the way for city leaders to sign a formal consent decree with the US Justice Department and EPA in 2006, promising to complete billions of dollars worth of improvement projects to reduce CSOs and to protect Marion County waterways.

"That agreement doesn't give us much choice," said Sherman, who inherited the city's long-term control plan when he became DPW director earlier this year. "It says ‘Thou shall do the things you say you're going to do,' and if those things are not done, people can go to jail."

Glenn Pratt, a former EPA regulator, says the federal consent decree means Indianapolis is now paying a high price for years of ignoring a serious problem.

"Other cities did 30 years ago what Indianapolis is doing now, and that's a shame," Pratt said. "Most people still don't understand this issue, but when their sewer bills start going up, then they'll get a better understanding of it."

Dozens of other Indiana communities have also entered into either federal consent decrees, state judicial agreements or administrative orders that dictate completion of CSO reduction plans.

"IDEM and EPA are continually working with most of the communities which still have CSO overflows to find ways of reducing those and eventually eliminating those events," explained Jeff Ewick, a manager in the water quality compliance office of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. "Discharge points are dwindling every year. This is a very expensive and time consuming process for communities to undertake."

Bates said he believes the time and cost are well worth it.

"It's not going to be cheap to fix it, but what we have to look at is what's going to be the cost if we don't fix it," he said. "Anything that goes down the toilet can end up down here at the river, and everything we dump into this river goes downstream. That's not fair."

See which Indiana communities have combined sewer overflows and how much sewage they are dumping into their waterways.
See what you can do to help reduce the number of combined sewer overflows in your community and how to get automatic alerts about sewage overflows in Marion County.

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