Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Cities swimming in sewage, Southeastern solar, & a halted pipeline

While strolling in Louisville’s Cherokee Park on a dreary, rainy day last week, my friend, Anna, stopped to look at a soggy piece of white paper hanging from a tree branch. “Is that toilet paper?” she asked. 

I nodded slowly in disbelief. We walked a little farther, where we discovered a giant, stagnant pile of trash under a bridge along Beargrass Creek. There were basketballs, footballs, bottles, paper, hundreds of styrofoam cups and to-go containers. More litter was strewn along the banks of the creek and in the trees. Brown water soaked the grass under our shoes. The air was humid, clammy, and smelled of raw sewage.  

About 40 billion gallons of rain fell within five days last month in the Louisville area, raising the Ohio River to its highest height since 1997. It was more than 20 feet above normal levels, and crested at 36 feet on Monday, marking the 10th highest level in recorded history (during the Great Flood of 1937, the river crested at just over 85 feet). Neighborhoods all along the Ohio in Louisville flooded, and river towns in southern Indiana, especially Utica, were also hit hard. The mayor of Louisville said he expected damages in the city to exceed the $2.8 million required for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

The pollution we saw in the park was only a drop in the bucket: Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) released about four billion gallons of stormwater and raw sewage into the Ohio River and Beargrass Creek over a five-day period, WFPL reported.

Beargrass Creek Watershed covers 61 square miles in the Jefferson County, where Louisville resides; the streams, creeks, and tributaries flow all over the city, including in Cherokee Park. Louisville is one of 772 cities in the U.S. with a combined sewer overflow system, according to the EPA. Combined sewers collect rainwater runoff, sewage, and industrial wastewater in the same pipe and transport it to a treatment plant, where it’s discharged into water bodies. But when there’s high precipitation, the volume exceeds the capacity of the sewer system, and excess wastewater is sent directly into waterways like Beargrass Creek and the Ohio River. Many other cities also use sanitary sewer systems (or a combination of both). These systems don’t collect stormwater along with wastewater, but they do have a habit of overflowing. The EPA estimates there are anywhere from 23,000  to 75,000 overflows from sanitary systems each year.

The overflows in Louisville isn’t new; two decades ago, MSD reported that with more than 80 miles of open drainage channels, creeks and smaller tributaries, pollution in the form of storm runoff was “almost endless.” It’s projected to get worse, and this year’s floods were a glimpse of what’s to come. A recent Army Corps of Engineers study found that warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns will lead to more frequent storm surges from the Ohio River. 

The National Climate Assessment says that inland floods cause more damage than any other severe weather event. That’s important for the Southeast, which is likely to see much more rainfall as the climate changes. Earlier this year, I wrote a story for the Daily Beastabout the rise of inland flooding across the region, from Louisville to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to rural West Virginia.

With more precipitation comes more sewage overflows—a critical and rarely-discussed public health consequence of climate change. Cities all over the South are dealing with this problem already because of aging sewage infrastructure. In Mobile and Baldwin Counties in Alabama, more than 26 million gallons of raw sewage have been discharged in local waterways since January 2017, mostly due to sanitary sewer overflows from aging sewage systems, according to environmental group Mobile Baykeeper. Heavy rains in Tampa last year caused 329,000 gallons of sewage to spill in a river. Sewage lines in Memphis ruptured last year as well, spilling millions of gallons of raw sewage into local rivers and lakes.

It’s a complicated, expensive problem to fix, and no one wants to pay for it. In Louisville, MSD says it needs more than $4 billion to upgrade the system. Other places are trying to finance similar upgrades by raising taxes or sewer system fees. 

The day after we walked around the park, Anna and I went to a jazz club in downtown Louisville located a couple of blocks from the Ohio River. Halfway through the set, water rose from the drain, covering the floors in several inches of murky water.

What happened next was a perfect representation of how society reacts to inconveniences and discomfort, to the many complications that climate change brings. Some people immediately jumped up from their seats, leaving their drinks behind so they could run upstairs to leave. Others stood on the steps to wait it out, wondering aloud what they should do. A few people stayed put, hardly moving out of the way while the owners worked to quickly sweep water back down the drain. A few people kept dancing. Eventually, the water receded, the floor dried, and the show was back on. There was a stale scent in the muggy air, but we all ordered another round, laughing at the fact that this would inevitably happen many times over during our lifetimes, and at least for that night, we figured out how to keep the water at bay. 

Stories worth your time

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy released its inaugural Solar in the Southeast Report, which shows that the Carolinas are leading the region in solar development, closely followed by Georgia and Florida. Solar power in the Southeast has doubled every year since 2012. However, utilities in many Southern states are reluctant to make the shift, and there are still regulatory hurdles, PV Magazine reports. For instance, Tennessee is falling further behind primarily because of policies by the utility company Tennessee Valley Authority. 

The New York Times and the Times-Picayune released their 10-month-long reporting project called “Our Drowning Coast,” which examines land loss and sea level rise along Louisiana’s coastline and asks which places should be saved, and which ones should be left to fate. “People argue that if you make the investments appropriately it will be fine, and it could be,” said Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. “But nobody really ever has the appetite to have a conversation about cutting off your arms so you can still walk.”

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is ramping up his campaign efforts in West Virginia, where he is running for a U.S. Senate seat. The coal executive was recently released from a yearlong stint in prison after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety law following a mine explosion that killed 29 people. West Virginians are still reeling from the tragedy, but as The New York Times writes, Blankenship is finding support by claiming to be a victim, “pursued unfairly by federal prosecutors and mine safety inspectors” and calling himself a “political prisoner.”

News flying under the radar

Florida is moving forward with electric vehicle policies as lawmakers decide on millions of dollars in funding for electric vehicle infrastructure, with bills sponsored by Republicans throughout the state.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission will allow Duke Energy to raise customers’ ratesby $14.00 to pay for coal ash cleanup. The company has to make a $2.5 million contribution to help low-income people help pay for the increase. 

federal judge halted construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin in southern Louisiana this week, saying that the project’s irreversible environmental damage outweighs the economic harm that a delay brings to Energy Transfer Partners, the company building it. The company’s lawyers said the halt would cost them almost $1 million daily; environmental activists have been protesting the pipeline all month to stop construction.