Several years ago, a friend with whom I often went wandering called me to meet her behind Lake Auburn. She said she had found something in which she thought I’d be interested.
[pullquote]When that trapper’s nearest neighbor was miles downstream, his sewer arrangement worked.[/pullquote]At the appointed day and time, we met and headed into the woods. About a half-mile, more or less, into the woods, she stopped and pointed. There beside a swiftly running stream was a rock foundation, the remains of the home of some long ago settler. It clearly was a two-room abode, built beside a stream. The log sides and roof were long gone.
We talked some of how many people could have lived in the structure, and why they chose that spot to live. We decided the resident likely was a trapper, who selected the site for its proximity to running water.
“What’s that about,” my friend asked of the smaller room.
It was built across the stream, elevated to allow the stream to flow freely beneath it.
“That’s the indoor outhouse,” I told her.
“E-e-e-w-w!” she responded.
There is a saying among some waste engineers: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” You can put almost anything in the water, and if there is enough water and enough distance to the next user, it will be undetectable. When that trapper’s nearest neighbor was miles downstream, his sewer arrangement worked.
Unfortunately, we continue to pack more people closer together and the waste they generate becomes more difficult to dilute. Private wells and septic tanks worked well for a time, but we have had to replace them with public water and waste treatment facilities. Even they may not be adequate.
A bit more than a week ago, an oil pipeline in Montana burst, dumping 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. The pipe’s owner, Bridger Pipeline, and its sister company reportedly have leaked about 334,000 gallons of oil in 30 such incidents since 2006.
In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipe oiled the same river. In 2013, another ExxonMobil pipeline, that time in Mayflower, Arkansas, burst and coated a large portion of the town with 210,000 gallons of the gooey stuff. Federal regulators fined the company $2.6 million, noting a series of safety violations over more than a decade.
In West Virginia, a rusted tank failed in 2014, dumping 7,000 gallons of coal cleaning chemicals into the Elk River, and causing 300,000 river water users to rely on water trucked to that state from Pennsylvania.
In October, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection levied a $4.5 million fine against Marcellus Shale driller EQT for its failure to stop chemical leakages from a storage impoundment. And driller Range Resources has agreed to a $4.15 million fine for similar violations at six of its impoundments.
Meanwhile, a Harrisburg-area township reportedly spilled more than 20,000 gallons of sewage overflow, at least some of which likely drained into a tributary of the Susquehanna River. Farther upriver, a chemical hauling tank truck crashed and spilled nearly 10,000 gallons into another of the river’s tributaries.
Millions of people along the Susquehanna River’s nearly 450-mile course get their drinking water from that river. Each polluter claims its contribution is insignificant – and it would be if, like that long-gone trapper, it truly was alone in the wilderness. But population keeps growing. Urban residents outnumber rural residents. Some chemicals have so far eluded the ability of treatment technologies to remove them.
Budget cuts have forced DEP to rely on companies to be honest about their problems and to maintain their equipment. It is a policy that is proven unreliable. And we are running out of places where a trapper can dump his effluent without sickening his downstream neighbors.