ST. LOUIS—Deep down a sunlit shaft, 175 feet under the North Riverfront neighborhood on the city’s far edge, Shayne Peck’s crew is beginning to hack a giant tunnel out of the limestone. Three men hang in the air on lifts, cutting into the rock face at spots marked with red paint. “They’re drilling holes,” says Peck, whose son is one of the drillers, “so we can load ’em with explosives.”
The start of the tunnel, just above the crew and the red-painted limestone, looks like the entrance to a cave in a cliff wall. Future blasts, Peck says, will deepen the tunnel—only 50 feet long now— until it stretches more than half a mile. This is not a tunnel for commuter trains or cars. It’s more of a horizontal well, and when it is complete in 2020, it will capture up to 12 million gallons of sewage-contaminated storm water, keeping it out of the Mississippi River. In effect, it will be a giant septic tank. But it won’t even be the biggest one in St. Louis.
The massive tunnel Peck has just started will soon be dwarfed by its successors. St. Louis is building a gargantuan system, including 28 miles of storage tunnels, to handle the city’s most stomach-churning water pollution problem. About 50 times a year, after major rainstorms, St. Louis’ sewers overflow, and 13 billion gallons of sewage-contaminated storm water escapes into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It’s an everyday environmental nightmare and a risk to human health. And it’s a common, if largely undiscussed, urban American affliction.
All across the Northeast and Midwest, and in some regions beyond, more than 700 older cities still dump toilet waste into their oceans, lakes and rivers. The nasty problem is built into the cities’ infrastructure, a relic of early 20th-century engineering practices that were considered engineering triumphs in their day. The sewer systems, built decades ago, combine storm water and wastewater in the same pipes. On normal days, those millions of gallons of waste pass through a treatment plant. But after storms, the sewers become overwhelmed and the treatment plants can’t keep up. Instead of allowing the excess water to back up into streets and basements, the solution from decades past was to build overflow valves that divert some of the untreated flow into the nearest waterway. According to an EPA report, just at the nation’s major beaches—a small portion of the country’s swimming areas—about 3,500 to 5,000 Americans a year get sick because of sewage-contaminated water.
That’s not OK anymore. Under pressure from the federal government, cities have embarked on decades-long projects to cut down on the sewage they spew. Since the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency has used the Clean Water Act to take legal action against about 200 large and medium-sized cities. For big cities, the cost of compliance runs into the billions of dollars.
St. Louis’ agreement with the EPA, signed in 2012, is the most expensive in the continental U.S. It commits the region to spending $4.7 billion in engineering projects over 23 years to cut down on sewer overflow. As toxic as its effects are on water quality, the cure can be brutal for taxpayers, many of whom might never have been aware of the problem until they learned that their sewer fees would triple or more to pay for the solution. The regional program in St. Louis, called Project Clear, will cost about $3,600 across those 23 years for every man, woman, and child in the city and its suburbs.
“Over 20 million people get their drinking water from the Mississippi River, including the city of St. Louis,” says Francis Slay, whose 16-year tenure as St. Louis mayor ended April 18. “So it’s of absolute importance to make sure we have clean water.”
Slay, while aware of the environmental consequences of doing nothing, nevertheless had an obligation to his constituents to soften the impact to their pocketbooks. After the EPA and a local environmental group sued St. Louis’ Metropolitan Sewer District in 2007, Slay, a Democrat, joined the negotiations and argued for a less costly project. “We were fighting for the taxpayers,” he says. “I was looking at cost, rates, timing, trying to do all we can to make it as reasonable as possible. And of course the EPA wanted to do it quicker, and they wanted it to be more expensive to start with—the same thing that was going on in cities across America.”
This cost containment encouraged the city to get creative. Instead of even more tunnels, St. Louis and the EPA agreed to substitute innovative ways of controlling storm water. Project Clear includes $100 million of green infrastructure projects, which give nature and open space the job of soaking up rain before it ever gets to the gutters. The sewer agency is building rain gardens on vacant lots and paying businesses to add water-thirsty mini-gardens to their developments. Many of MSD’s green projects do more than lighten the burden on the sewers—they also have side effects that help St. Louis’s neighborhoods.
“We can’t just spend the money we’re spending, and solve our problem, and have most of the solutions be underground,” says Brian Hoelscher, the sewer agency’s CEO. “We’re finding every opportunity we can to team with somebody…In a lot of cases, it makes the cost of our program less.”
The Metropolitan Sewer District is a regional agency that works closely with St. Louis, whose mayor appoints half of its board. That cooperation grew even closer on March 23, when the sewer agency began a $13.5 million effort to tear down condemned homes inside St. Louis and replace them with open space. The project will double the number of vacant, blighted homes torn down in St. Louis from 200 a year to 400—a huge help to a city that has lost more than half its peak population since its peak of 857,000 in 1950. For the neighborhood, each tear-down means one less dangerous eyesore. For the sewer system, each newly empty lot means about 10,000 fewer gallons of storm water coming in per year, which means less tainted overflow spilling out.
But by far the biggest component of the project is the tunnel system, which keeps 30 men occupied more or less full time, and will for many years to come. Shayne Peck, 47, a fourth-generation tunneler whose family built coal mines, used to excavate for the Chicago sewers. “I’m open to staying here in St. Louis,” Peck says. “I only need eight more years until I’m retired.”
A quiet waterway meanders through St. Louis’ vast Forest Park, threading past a classical-columned bandstand, under white-railed bridges, past bike paths and through verdant marshes. It might look bucolic but it’s manmade, constructed less than 20 years ago to imitate a real river that disappeared from the park more than a century ago. Near the waterway, in the park’s northeast corner, behind an overlooked gate set in the earth, concrete steps lead underground to reveal what happened to that lost river. Down below, two century-old concrete tunnels, dark and ominous, rise 29 feet high to vaulted ceilings. The sound of flowing water echoes off the walls.
“You’re standing inside a combined sewer,” says Lance LeComb, spokesman for St. Louis’ Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD). “It just happens to be a very large one.”
In one tunnel, brown water flows slowly, carrying a bit of debris now and then. A short weir divides the tunnel from its slightly higher twin, which holds a little trail of standing water. The flowing water, LeComb says, is wastewater coming from the western suburb of University City, four miles away. Across the channel, he points out the opening of a smaller tunnel in the far wall, where storm water from St. Louis’ Union Boulevard empties into the sewer.
This massive tunnel structure is what’s left of the River des Peres here in Forest Park. More than a century ago, the river bent here, turning from east to south on its route to the Mississippi River. But St. Louis, like many older cities, used its rivers and creeks as sewers in the 19th century. In 1904, when St. Louis held the World’s Fair in Forest Park, this stretch of the River des Peres stank so badly that the city enclosed it in a long wooden box. In the 1910s and 1920s, St. Louis banished the foul waterway permanently. The city dug an open-cut trench four miles long, built the twin tunnels inside, then buried them.
The tunnels are an engineering marvel, even now. They were declared a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1988. But even this mammoth structure, St. Louis’ largest combined sewer, can’t handle a heavy rain without overflowing. About a mile south, where the twin tunnels open into daylight, the water they carry falls through two large grates and into other sewers that run straight to the Lemay Wastewater Treatment Plant, the region’s second-largest sewage facility, which can treat up to 340 million gallons of water a day. But after storms, the grates become overwhelmed and the excess storm water and waste water spill into the last 10 miles of the River des Peres. Dozens more overflowing sewers do the same, feeding into the river before it opens into the Mississippi 10 miles south of the iconic Gateway Arch.
“It’s not much of a river anymore,” says LeComb. “It’s what happens to urban rivers in America.”
Cities in 32 states have combined sewers. They’re mostly in the Northeast and the Midwest, where sewers often date from the mid-20th century or earlier. (Cities in the interior West and Southwest, which developed later, tended to build sewers that separate sewage from storm water.) But in those older cities, diluted sewage still overflows into rivers, lakes and oceans after rain. The consequences for public health are serious. Bacteria common in sewage, including salmonella and E. coli, can cause stomach and intestinal illness. Viruses can also lead to fever, skin infections and respiratory illness. Fishermen who eat their catch from polluted rivers are also at risk. Just how much risk depends on the body of water being polluted—how big it is, how fast it moves and how people interact with it. In many Great Lakes cities, signs go up on urban beaches after heavy summer storms, warning visitors that bacteria levels are too high for them to swim. One Cleveland beach had an advisory posted for half of all summer days in 2015.
Since 1994, the EPA has worked its way across the country, roughly from east to west, suing cities’ sewer departments and agencies to force them to clean up. The result has been negotiated settlements (consent decrees overseen by federal judges) with cities such as Atlanta ($1.1 billion in 1998), Washington ($2.6 billion in 2003), Cincinnati ($3.3 billion in 2004), and Cleveland ($3 billion in 2011).
The enormous projects promised in consent decrees have meant big contracts for construction firms—and, sometimes, a chance for the unscrupulous to profiteer. A 1993 consent decree to improve Birmingham, Alabama’s sewers played a role in a spectacular corruption scandal. It led to multiple bribery convictions of public officials and contractors—and Jefferson County’s 2011 municipal bankruptcy.
In 2015, the EPA declared that it, or state agencies, had addressed overflows in 201 of the nation’s 213 largest combined sewer systems. Only a few big cities have escaped lawsuits, most of them because they confronted their sewer overflows early. Milwaukee started to build tunnels to capture overflows in the 1970s. Philadelphia, which cooperates closely with the EPA, came to a less formal agreement instead of being sued. (New York City has a legal agreement with its state government, not the feds, to curb overflows.)
Homeowners bear the costs of the anti-pollution projects, usually in spiking sewer bills. The EPA considers sewer rates a high burden if they’re more than 2 percent of a region’s median household income—but even then, it wants communities to finish their clean-water projects in 15 to 20 years. So local officials often come to consent decree negotiations seeking to limit how much they’ll have to spend to control overflows and how many years they’ll have to finish.
Those stakes were especially high for the St. Louis region. It has the nation’s fourth largest sewer system, behind only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The city of St. Louis also has a high poverty rate, so sewer bills can take up a big portion of poorer city homeowners’ budgets.
Going into consent-decree negotiations, the sewer agency braced itself for a $6 billion bill and 15 to 17 years to get the work done. That would’ve sent sewer rates soaring, from a low $14 a month for the average single-family house in 2003, and $28 a month in 2011, past $100 a month in the 2020s.
“If they had just charged us more money and wanted to get it done quicker, it would have been devastating,” says Slay, the former mayor. “We have a high level of poverty in the city of St. Louis. What we’re doing now is going to be a heavy burden on households.”
Instead, the 2012 consent decree settled on $4.7 billion over 23 years. That included $1.8 billion to reduce combined sewer overflows in the city and some nearby suburbs, mostly by building those 28 miles of storage tunnels. It also includes $2 billion to eliminate sanitary sewer overflows in the outer suburbs—a different challenge that involves keeping storm water out of the separate waste water system, testing sewer lines for clogs and cleaning them out, building above-ground storage tanks, and disconnecting suburban homes’ downspouts from the sewer system.
The St. Louis consent decree is still the second largest the EPA has negotiated in a sewer case, second only to Honolulu’s $5 billion. St. Louis saved a lot of money by convincing the EPA to let it deal with overflows in half of the city without building interceptor tunnels – by building green infrastructure instead of gray.
The old bungalow’s front-porch roof was splintered and sagging. Its roof tiles were tattered, a gutter missing, a missing side door or window replaced only by a thin board. It was just one of thousands of vacant buildings in St. Louis—but on March 23, the mayor, the local alderman, and the head of St. Louis’ sewer agency came out to see an excavator’s claw tear it down.
With that demolition, the sewer agency became a partner in the city’s drive to knock down its most ruined houses. St. Louis has lost more than half of its population since the mid-20th century, settling at 318,000 today. When people leave, they leave houses behind. Parts of north St. Louis are peppered with empty houses in various states of decay. “Doll houses,” some St. Louisans call them because a missing wall, ripped away by scavengers, lets you look straight inside.
MSD’s $13.5 million home demolition program will knock down about 200 more houses a year (up from 200) and leave the lots vacant to absorb rainwater. A pilot program showed that the newly vacant lots reduced the load on the sewer system by soaking up more rain. Every acre of impervious surface removed translated into 231,000 gallons less sewer overflow.
Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, whose north St. Louis ward includes some of the city’s most vacant lots, calls it a win-win for the sewer agency and his constituents. “One of the biggest concerns people have in the neighborhood are the vacant buildings,” says Boyd, “that either they’ll fall on someone, or some kid’s going to get snatched up into one.”
St. Louis’ consent agreement with the EPA includes $100 million in green infrastructure projects—changes to the land that keep rain out of the sewer system. It’s one of the largest such commitments in the country. And it’ll transform empty land across St. Louis’ north side.
Like the rain garden on a vacant lot in St. Louis’ Old North neighborhood. Created by MSD, the garden is specially landscaped and engineered to absorb storm water from nearby streets. Even in late March, before it blooms fully, the lot is a subtle landscape of green, red and orange plants. Purple coneflower, sumac and sedges, all native to Missouri, were chosen to appeal to birds and butterflies and to soak up a lot of rain. The land is sculpted into a basin, lower than street level. In the streets around the garden, cuts in the curbs look like gutters—but they flow into the garden instead of underground.
Though the two-century-old Old North neighborhood has suffered from abandonment, it has begun to experience prosperity too. The Crown Square project, completed in 2010, rehabilitated 27 historic buildings a few blocks down North 14th Street. Development is springing up even closer to the rain garden: new houses in a row two blocks away, some homes with stickers still on their new windows the other direction. Future developers of nearby blocks will benefit from the rain garden taking in some of their property’s storm runoff from their property. “If a new development goes in over there,” says MSD’s LeComb, “that new development won’t have to pay for the same level of storm water control, because it’s already being done by us.”
West of downtown St. Louis, developers have benefited directly from another MSD program, which compensates them if they build green infrastructure. The parking lot of the new Ikea on Forest Park Boulevard is ringed with green gardens full of rain-slurping plants. A new office park on several nearby blocks has little gardens and tree lawns next to the street, soaking in rain from the street.
Across the country, forward-thinking sewer agencies are building green infrastructure and calculating where it’ll do the most good, both for the sewer system and the community. Kansas City, Missouri, which signed a $2.4 billion consent decree in 2010, aims to create $68 million in green infrastructure, much of it in the city’s Marlborough neighborhood, where a nine-acre park with a wetland pond is under construction. DC Water in Washington plans to install permeable pavement in six locations in the District this summer and fall. In the Brightwood neighborhood, it’s already spent $2 million on street trees and little curbside pockets of green space to collect rain water.
Back in St. Louis, the green infrastructure program isn’t the only part of Project Clear that’s changing the city’s landscape. MSD is also spending $230 million on its Cityshed program, which has tackled flooding that burdens the sewer system. In eight low-lying areas, including valleys where creeks once ran, MSD offered to buy the homes of a couple of hundred homeowners whose basements chronically flood. All but a few of them have taken the sewer agency’s offers and moved. LeComb says the agency followed federal guidelines on fair financial offers to relocate homeowners, paying moving expenses and the cost of buying a comparable home elsewhere.
MSD’s clean-water plans split St. Louis in half. The north and east get green infrastructure, while the south and west get old-fashioned gray infrastructure – tunnels and other projects made of concrete and steel. There are two reasons for the split. Sewers in the north and east flow, and overflow, directly to the Mississippi River. Sewers in the south and west head to the River des Peres. Coincidentally, that water divide roughly lines up with St. Louis’ economic and social divides. The north side, home to the city’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, has suffered for decades from white flight and disinvestment. Today, it’s struggling the most with vacant and abandoned properties. That’s left more room for green space, and more demand for demolition projects.
Boyd, the alderman, says he’s not aware of any opposition to Project Clear’s different approaches for the two sides of town. MSD’s green goals for the north side fit his constituents’ wishes. They responded to the March 23 demolition with enthusiasm. “After a story aired, I got calls: ‘Would you consider [knocking down] a building on my street?’”
But there are limits to what green infrastructure can do for a city and its sewers. The EPA allowed St. Louis to go all-green to the north because less stringent water-quality standards apply to the Mississippi River. On the south side of town, where sewers overflow into the River des Peres, storage tunnels and other gray infrastructure will slash the overflow volume, currently 6.3 billion gallons a year, by roughly 80 percent. On the north side, the $100 million in green infrastructure will reduce the volume of the sewage-tainted overflows going directly into the Mississippi by 110 million gallons a year—less than 2 percent of the 7 billion gallons that overflow there every year. Since the River des Peres flows into the Mississippi, that means Project Clear will reduce the total overflows into the Mississippi by about 40 percent.
Is it OK to let so much sewage into the Mississippi River? It seems like a shoddy way to treat America’s most legendary waterway, which carried Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn to exploration and adventure. But the ways Americans have used and altered the Mississippi actually explain the different treatment.
“We have a very fast-flowing, managed river that’s really constructed for commerce,” says Hoelscher, the sewer agency’s CEO. “We don’t have beaches. It’s not used for recreation.” In short, it’s a river that doesn’t need a lot of coddling.
The EPA has several levels of water-quality standards, depending in part on how people use a lake or river. It’s a quarter-mile-wide at St. Louis, with a strong current. No one dips into it for a swim—it’s too dangerous. In fact, though St. Louis celebrates its identity as a riverfront city, there aren’t many places where people can visit the river. Industrial uses line its banks north of downtown. Even near the Gateway Arch and in Laclede’s Landing, the historic waterfront neighborhood, tall concrete levees guard against floods. The EPA doesn’t consider the Mississippi a recreational waterway. That contributes to its tolerance for continued sewer overflows along its banks. The giant waterway can absorb, dilute, churn and metabolize more pollution than a trickling stream in a drainage channel—such as the River des Peres.
So, despite all the ways green infrastructure can improve and beautify a city, sewer agencies can’t go all-green, because concrete tunnels usually provide more bang for the buck. Which brings us back to the titanic engineering project now underway.
Even where the River des Peres still exists, it’s an unnatural waterway, altered by human design. In the near-west suburbs, just before its plunges into the Forest Park tubes and becomes a sewer line, the river is often bound by concrete. When it re-emerges above ground after the park, it’s a wide, V-shaped drainage canal. A Works Progress Administration project built during the New Deal, the channel replaced the old, natural riverbed. Most days, the broad channel has only a trickle of water in it — a mix of standing rainwater and the remnants of the last storm’s sewer overflows. The only time it really looks like a river is after heavy storms, when water can back up the tributary from the surging Mississippi River. As unsightly as the river is, people come into contact with the River des Peres often. No one swims in it, but a bike path runs along a stretch of it. Houses back up to it. “It’s just an empty big huge ditch,” says Hoelscher, “that birds, ducks, and kids like to play in.”
It’s not as bad as it was in the 1980s, when residents often called it the River de Pew because of its stench. In the 1990s and 2000s, even before the EPA came calling, MSD spent $2.3 billion to cut its number of sewer overflow points regionwide from about 700 to about 400. But the River des Peres channel is still a health hazard. A kid playing, or an adult picking up trash, could be exposed to E. coli and other bacteria common in human waste.
So this is where MSD will build most of its tunnels. In 2020, it’ll start Project Clear’s biggest single project, the nine-mile-long, 30-foot-wide, $630 million Lower & Middle River des Peres Storage Tunnel. The behemoth will run under the River des Peres from the Forest Park tubes’ outflow to near the Lemay treatment plant on the Mississippi. It’ll capture up to 206 million gallons of combined sewer overflow after storms. In 2024, MSD plans to start a two-mile tunnel under some River des Peres tributaries. In 2028, it’s agreed to start another 9,000-foot tunnel to capture overflows that now go into the Upper River des Peres in University City. For those projects, tunnel-boring machines, rather than explosives, will handle most of the work.
Once it’s all done, Project Clear is supposed cut the number of overflows a year into the River des Peres from about 50 to about 4. The total volume of overflows should fall 80 percent, to about 1.2 billion gallons a year. It’s not perfect, but no city’s combined-sewer project is. The rule of thumb in overflow control and tunnel-building is that the costs escalate fast the farther you push toward zero and try to contain the flow from the very heaviest storms.
And, unfortunately, the price will keep spiking for St. Louis homeowners. Average sewer rates will hit $44 per month this year, $61 a month in 2020, and possibly as much as $90 a month in the mid-2020s. “We’re trying to find how to lower the next set of rates,” says Hoelscher. Smart financing helps some. In 2016, area voters approved the sale of bonds to fund Project Clear. MSD is also the biggest user of the state of Missouri’s revolving loan fund.
The consent decree will set MSD’s priorities until 2035. The proposed cuts to the EPA in Trump Administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget will only affect St. Louis indirectly, if at all. The proposal includes a 37-percent cut to the EPA’s civil enforcement division, which takes local governments and businesses to court, and a 12-percent cut in compliance monitoring. “It’s going to cripple the ability of EPA to move forward with more enforcement on CSOs,” warns Amanda Waters, general counsel of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Cuts like that could slow the EPA’s efforts to get the last few major holdout cities under combined-sewer consent decrees.
Once a consent decree is signed, it’s hard to change—as the Trump Administration is discovering in the realm of police reform. A federal judge recently approved Baltimore’s police consent decree, negotiated by the Obama Administration, despite the Trump Administration’s attempt to delay it. Likewise, even an EPA less friendly to regulation can’t change existing clean-water decrees easily. “A judge has the responsibility to oversee that decree for the life of it,” Waters says. “You’d have to go back to the judge, and explain why [changing it is the] right thing.”
But a weaker EPA could make it harder to cities like St. Louis to renegotiate their decrees to fit changing technologies—for example, to substitute more green infrastructure for gray. “This is the part that concerns me the most about these cuts,” says Waters, “for our existing members who need to be able to adapt their decrees to match the times.”