Home > Environmental   +   Water

Under Water?

Under Water?

Some communities are taking steps to address climate change with their wastewater infrastructure. Photo credit: Jenn Bakker/Breathtakingmomentsphotography.com

Climate Change Imperils Some Wastewater Treatment Plants – And Their Workers

By Thomas Renner

Climate change is being felt all around the world, even in some areas that escape attention. Water treatment plants might be under the radar for many scientists, but the impact on this critical piece of community infrastructure is widespread, enduring, and costly to remedy.

“Wastewater systems are not designed for this changing climate,’’ said Sri Vedachalam, Director for water equity and climate resilience at Corvias Infrastructure Solutions, LLC. “They were designed for an older climate that probably doesn’t exist anymore.”

Falls are common at water treatment plants, and plants struggling to adjust to climate change are even more perilous. The family of Maryland woman, Trina Cunningham, knows the danger all too well. The Baltimore city employee drowned inside a wastewater treatment plant in June 2019 when she fell through a grate walkway. “My wife going to work for a day should not have been a grave mistake,’’ her husband, Towanda Grant-Cunningham, told WBAL-TV when the family filed a lawsuit in 2021.

“I can see an escalation in this problem,’’ Vedachalam said. “We have the problem of an aging workforce and older generations that have a lot of experience are retiring. It’s a challenge recruiting people for these jobs. They are riskier than typical desk jobs. As more and more climate disasters happen, water utilities are at the frontlines of addressing these challenges. Workers need to be adequately prepared to work longer hours under challenging conditions to fix a broken main or leaking sewage or address flooding in the utility building.”

Fall protection grates are frequently used at wastewater treatment plants to protect workers. Photo credit: Jenn Bakker/Breathtakingmomentsphotography.com

Solutions, big and small, can help decrease the risk of injury to workers. The climate crisis, however, demands that those solutions be implemented soon. 

Frequent Problem

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics illustrates the dangers faced by workers at water treatment plants. The Bureau reports that for every 100 employees in the water and sewage industry, 5.3 employees suffer injuries. More than 3 out of every 100 employees were injured severely enough to cause them to miss work, require a job transfer or restrict job duties. 

Workers face several hazards. They routinely walk on storage tanks, elevated surfaces, vehicles, and roofs. There are other dangers as well.

In 2022, an employee with the Middletown Sewage Authority in New Jersey, John Molnar, died after he descended into a manhole and became disoriented by lack of oxygen. He drowned in water at the bottom of the hole. Attempts by employees to pull him out failed. A state agency fined the sewage treatment plant $168,000 for safety violations at the plant. 

Last year, a construction worker in Pennsylvania fell through a roof and into an empty storage tank at the Ephrata Borough Wastewater Treatment Plant. Roy Bautista, 35, died a week after the fall of multiple traumatic injuries. 

More than 5 workers out of every 100 at water treatment plants suffer injuries, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.Photo credit: Charlie Fernandes

Roofing is even more dangerous for falls than wastewater treatment plants. Roofers die at close to twice the average rate of all US construction workers, with 29.9 deaths for every 1,000 full-time workers. Sadly, many falls in both industries can be reduced by simply following regulations. The Occupation Safety and Health Administration reports that basic fall protection regulations are the most often violated and ignored. 

“It’s frustrating,’’ said Tico Jimenez, President of Haven Fall Protection in Pennsylvania. “A lot of times it’s because people are trying to cut corners. You’re trying to make that fast buck for the day, and it ends up not working out that way.”

Improving Safety

One popular safety choice at many wastewater treatment plants is BILCO’s fall protection grating for floor access doors. The system provides a permanent means of fall protection under access doors and exceeds OSHA fall protection requirements. They include a stainless steel automatic hold open device that securely locks the panel in the open position. 

BILCO also makes an anti-slip coating for its aluminum floor access door covers that have a higher coefficient of friction than standard diamond plate. 

“Products such as BILCO’s safety systems are precisely engineered and work great in our fall protection systems. They are an important part of the overall protection plans,’’ Jimenez said.

Needed Overhaul

Certainly, climate change cannot be directly attributed to the deaths and injuries of workers at water treatment plants. The data is clear, however, that water treatment plants are dangerous. It is also evident that plants need a major overhaul. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave wastewater treatment plants a D+ grade in its 2021 report card. In the nation’s more than 16,000 wastewater treatment plants, 81 percent reached their design capacity and 15 percent reached or exceeded it. In 2019, the annual water infrastructure capital investment gap stood at $81 billion. 

The report concluded that most water treatment plants have an average lifespan of 40 to 50 years. Many of them were built during the 1970s. The Clean Water Act of 1972 spurred construction, but many of those systems are now reaching the end of their useful lives. 

In addition, the drinking water and wastewater pipes are now approaching 50 years old, while some system components are more than a century old. The typical lifespan of wastewater pipes is between 50 and 100. 

“As collection systems decline in condition, groundwater and stormwater enter the networks through cracks, joints, or illicit connections as inflow and infiltration,’’ the report said. “When collection systems are overtaxed, sanitary sewer overflows can occur.”

One other trend that points to needed infrastructure improvement is population migration to urban environments. A 2018 Pew Research Center study expects 86 percent of the nation’s population growth to occur in urban and suburban areas. “Growing urban environments signal a trend that central wastewater treatment plants will increasingly accommodate a larger portion of the nation’s wastewater demand,’’ the report said. 

Vedachalam says water management is a nationwide problem in the face of climate change and requires more than addressing wastewater systems. “In places like the Midwest and Northeast, they are experiencing more rain events,’’ he said. “In Florida and Georgia, parts of their coast are near sea level. Virginia is seeing sea level rise. If you go to the western US, it’s typically dry but we’ve also seen some significant flooding. The impacts of climate change are felt even in cities that are farther away from the coasts and experiencing inland flooding.”

Treatment Plant Improvements

Some communities have already taken steps to address their wastewater infrastructure in the wake of climate change. 

Anacortes, Washington’s treatment plant is located along the Skagit River. The plant serves 56,000 people, and city leaders realized it was vulnerable to floods and future climate risks back in 2003. It needed to update the facility from 21.4 million gallons of water per day to 31.5 mgd, but moving the facility out of the floodplain was deemed too costly. Officials rebuilt the plant on the existing site in a $56 million project. 

When upgrading the facility, officials received input from scientists and used climate data to make informed decisions. They incorporated projections of climate vulnerability within plant design to adapt to future conditions. The steps Anacortes took included elevating structures and installing ring dikes and dewatering pump systems to protect against flooding. The solution also included raising and strengthening levees near the plant, placing switch gears above 100-year flood level, and utilizing watertight construction and a waterproof membrane below 40-foot elevation. 

Boston also addressed climate change at its Deer Island Wastewater Treatment Plant. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority determined facility vulnerability to sea level rise and raised key portions of the plant 1.9 feet. The redesign and construction over a 10-year period was part of a $3.8 billion upgrade to add secondary treatment and consolidate regional treatment capacity by increasing Deer Island capacity from 250 to 350 million gallons per day. 

Expensive Solutions

Solutions for repairing the country’s wastewater treatment plants are costly. Federal assistance for projects is available from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The program provides money for eligible water and wastewater infrastructure projects. 

Vedachalam said more innovation could also help alleviate issues with climate change and overtaxed wastewater systems. 

“One option to manage the excess rainfall could be to make bigger pipes and have holding tanks where you can hold water for a couple of days until it can be released back into the community,’’ he said. “You might have a combination of natural infrastructure solutions where you’re trying to absorb water on land by converting existing concrete and asphalt into more natural systems. It has to be a combination of different things.”

Addressing the crisis, however, will take time. “I think we’re seeing it unfold right now where there is more emphasis on resiliency and preparedness rather than simply being reactive to a disaster,’’ Vedachalam said. “People are realizing that shifts need to happen more quickly. It’s going to take several more disasters before we start to see significant change.”

Thomas Renner writes on building, construction and other trade industry topics for publications throughout the United States.