It’s completely utilitarian. Cold metal plates and screws and lifeless. But for just a moment, its head tilted slightly, the thing seems alive. It begs for attention as a winter sun flashes across glass eyes.
“It looks robotic,” said Jim Roberts, a public information officer with Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. “RD-D2, or whatever it was.”
It doesn’t move very fast. Not with these small wheels.
“About walking speed,” said Doug Gibson, a crew supervisor with ECUA. “If you put the big tires on there it’ll really go.”
It’s a couple of feet long. Equipped with a light and a camera. Its functionality bleeds a personality.
On a crisp early morning off of Langley Avenue, the ECUA crew prepared to lower their small robotic pet into an open manhole. Once inside the sewer line, it will search out problems in the pipe.
“Any faults with the pipe,” Gibson explained. “Root intrusion, utilities, debris, just any kind of thing.”
On this particular morning, the robot is locating a hole in the line caused by an attempt to run another utility. Just another morning for the ECUA robot. It seems to enjoy the work.
Gibson sends out crews everyday, all day, to scour ECUA’s network of infrastructure for possible issues. It takes about three and a half years to inspect the entire system—then they start over.
That’s been going on for a while. Well before last year’s agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“We started a good four or five years ago hitting it hard,” Gibson said. “Before the consent order.”
The Nothing-New Blues
Last June, the DEP issued a consent order to ECUA. The state wanted the utilities authority to address issues with its infrastructure.
The consent order wasn’t exactly enlightening. It addressed some of the concerns already giving ECUA officials headaches.
“It’s nothing new to us,” said ECUA Director Steve Sorrell. “We support it, we’re part of it.”
It’s no secret that portions of ECUA’s aging infrastructure are in need of repairs or replacement. Addressing the issue has been a daily affair.
“Every single day that goes by, we’re trying to upgrade things,” Sorrell said.
The DEP consent order—which specifically addresses sewage spills—formalizes the need to address the infrastructure. It, in fact, mandates it.
“They’re very interested in resolving these issues,” said Shawn Hamilton, DEP Northwest District director. “Like Steve said, they were heading in this direction.”
Hamilton describes the consent order as the “product of a negotiated process.” An amiable arrangement.
“It says ‘order,’” he explained, “but at the heart of it is an agreement.”
At the heart of that agreement is a calendar, a 16-year window in which ECUA must address issues with its infrastructure.
“We wanted to make sure we weren’t setting them up for failure,” Hamilton said. “Of course, we’d love everything to be done in the blink of an eye, but that’s not realistic.”
During the 16-year interim, the area’s water and wastewater infrastructure will continue to exhibit issues. In addition to everyday problems such as stray utility intrusions, the pipes will continue to deal with age-associated ailments—breaks and cracks, inflows and infiltration and spills.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initially pushed for a tighter window. It wanted ECUA’s infrastructure addressed much more quickly.
“The EPA actually wanted a five-year period—it’s just too big of an animal, it’s too costly,” Sorrell said, adding that the workload itself would also prove prohibitive. “We couldn’t do it in five years if we wanted to.”
The DEP suggested seven years, but the utilities authority officials still considered that calendar ambitious. They preferred to spread the financial pain over a longer period of time.
“Then we talked about 10 years and we said, ‘Well, that’s going to put a real hardship on the people that live here,’” Sorrell said. “What we did was stretch it out over a 16-year-period.”
Prior to the consent order, the ECUA had already begun a series of incremental rate increases in order to fund needed repairs. Such increases will most likely continue for the foreseeable future.
“They’re not going to be dramatic,” Sorrell said. “I don’t think they’re going to be 20 or 30 percent or anything like that.”
The ECUA was already knee-deep in upkeep, but the director said the DEP consent order will focus such efforts. It will make them “much more organized.”
Improving the infrastructure is dependent on sufficient funds. Sorrell said the consent order will also serve to ensure that those funds—in the form of incremental rate increases approved by an elected board—are found.
“DEP has the regulatory hammer, and they wanted the guarantee that something was going to be done regardless of who was in office,” the director said. “A federal judge will enforce this.”
Sorrell described the ECUA’s relationship with regulatory agencies as “very cooperative.” He contrasted it with the scene in Miami.
“EPA has come down on them with a strong fist,” the director said. “They didn’t have to do that to us, because we’re agreeable and supportive.”
Pipes and Problems
The ECUA water and wastewater infrastructure constitutes thousands of miles of pipes lying just beneath the ground. They channel potable water to customers and ferry sewage away to a treatment facility.
“You’re talking a lot of pipe,” Gibson said, as the robot scoured the drain buried beneath the street under his feet.
Some of the infrastructure—particularly portions inherited in the early 1980s from the city of Pensacola—is quite old.
“Some of the pipes were installed, could be a hundred years ago,” Sorrell said.
While the director said most of the water infrastructure is in “good shape,” there are concerns with the wastewater pipes. With the older sections composed of pipes made with cement or clay—“it’s called terra cotta”—breaks happen.
“It’s very, very fragile,” Sorrell said.
While pipes can break for any number of reasons—roots, utility intrusions, construction accidents—aging infrastructure carries an inherent risk. This is not a problem unique to ECUA.
In 2002, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that annual investment aimed at improving water infrastructure through the year 2019 needed to be between $13 and $20.9 billion. That same year, the EPA released a gap analysis, which compared the current spending for wastewater infrastructure to the actual funding needs—the agency estimated that over the next two decades the U.S. would need to pony up $390 billion to improve its systems.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water systems a D- in its 2009 Report Card on American Infrastructure.
“Many systems have reached the end of their useful design lives,” an ASCE summary stated.
When breaks occur in a pipe, it opens the door to problems. Dirt and debris can enter the line. In water lines this means contaminates can enter the supply and leads to officials issuing boil-water notices. In the case of wastewater pipes, sewage can exit the line or the line can be overwhelmed and result in a spill.
“You’ve heard talk of I and I—inflow and infiltration?” asked Sorrell. “I and I is what causes SSOs.”
SSOs are the subject of the DEP consent order. It’s an acronym for Sanitary Sewer Overflow. That’s a fancy way to describe a big shitty mess—it means untreated sewage is entering the environment.
The consent order focuses on 24 out of more than 100 SSOs, or spills, that occurred from March 2009 to May 2010. The agency focused on spills it deemed to be “within the reasonable control” of ECUA, the largest of which released 125,000 gallons.
In 2012, ECUA reported around 70 spills to DEP. It was about the same for 2011, including a line-break that resulted in the release of more than 2 million gallons of untreated sewage into Thompson Bayou.
According to Emerald Coastkeeper Sava Varazo, the risks posed by an aging infrastructure shouldn’t be underplayed. He’s concerned about vulnerabilities in the system and the impacts of spills.
“Your first concern is ground water,” Varazo said, pointing out the obvious pollution issues. “Your second is surface water.”
While he’s familiar with the ECUA’s financial argument, the Coastkeeper doesn’t think the 16-year timeline agreed to by DEP is optimal for the environment.
“The consent order is better than no consent order, but it’s a long time to wait,” Varazo said. “Sixteen years is just so far out of sight, out of mind.”
A Big Job
Regardless of the age or shape of a system’s infrastructure, inflow and infiltration will be a concern. Sewage spills will still happen.
Gas and cable companies will still stumble across lines. Contractors will still dig into them.
When asked the biggest cause of SSOs, Gibson doesn’t hesitate. It’s not due to aging infrastructure-induced breaks.
“Grease,” Gibson said.
A good number of SSOs are apparently caused when restaurants improperly dispose of grease. Once in the line, it hardens and the fun begins.
“You have to go out there with a root cutter and get it out,” Gibson said.
Gibson’s got a good bit of experience with water and wastewater infrastructure. Got 32 years in the field.
Things have changed a lot during that time. While the infrastructure ages, the world around it evolves. The tools become techier and the robots get cooler.
“Equipment’s changed,” Gibson said. “Better technology.”
Inside the ECUA truck, workers monitor a video feed from their pet robot under the street. This is the prep work for utilitarian surgery.
“This is great,” Roberts said, studying the video. “This is just Star Wars stuff.”
The robot located a small round hole in the pipe. Raw earth peeked into the system. If left unattended, this could potentially lead to SOS issues or possibly allow enough dirt into the pipe to eventually crater the street.
“If you don’t do anything and you just wait, the road will collapse,” Gibson said.
Another crew will tend to the problem. They will either replace the pipe or patch it up. Gibson and his crew will be nailing down other problems by then.
With a complete loop of the system made every few years, ECUA has a relatively intimate account of the condition of its infrastructure. As per the DEP consent order, it will now begin to map out the specific issues.
Last fall, the utilities authority supplied the state with a Comprehensive Evaluation Plan. In it, ECUA explains how it plans to determine the priority issues with its infrastructure. The evaluation process is scheduled to take five years.
The next five years will be devoted to correcting priority issues. Work will focus on projects deemed most effective in eliminating SSOs. The five years after that will be devoted to the completion of all other rehabilitative projects identified during the assessment. The final year built into the 16-year plan accommodates DEP’s review and ECUA’s response.
While the consent-order calendar makes everything very official, it has not impacted reality on the ground. ECUA crews continue to tend to the infrastructure, correcting problems as they find them.
“It’s a big job,” Sorrell said.
As Gibson explained how the pace of his work has quickened along with technological advances, a man on his crew scanned the street with a device that looked like a cross between a metal detector and a futuristic pogo-stick. He located the robot’s head, and then crunched some math to deduce the whereabouts of the hole.
“If we got 1,200 feet a day back in the day, you were doing good,” Gibson laughed.
The supervisor estimated that his crews currently cover three to four thousand feet of pipe each day. Eternally searching for problems.
Perhaps in a few years, the prioritization list and increase in rates will allow ECUA to increase the pace even more. For now, it’s one day at a time, for 16 years.
Design Life of Water Systems
Collections: 80 to 100 years
Treatment Plants, Concrete Structures: 50 years
Treatment Plants, Mechanical and Electrical: 15 to 25 years
Force Mains: 25 years
Pumping Stations, Concrete Structures: 50 years
Pumping Stations, Mechanical and Electrical: 15 years
Interceptors: 90 to 100 years
source: Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis Report, EPA, Sept. 2002.
Invitation to Consent
In June 2012, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a consent order to the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. The agreement cites 24 spill events between March 2009 and May 2010 that the state deemed to be avoidable.
Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO), or spills, occur when there is a break in the pipe, or the system is overwhelmed by heavy rain events. While spills can be caused by accidental breaks in the pipe, an aging infrastructure—with its inherent inflow and infiltration issues—makes a system all the more susceptible to SOS events.
ECUA is currently in the beginning months of the 16-year calendar hammered out with DEP. The first five years will be devoted to evaluating the infrastructure, with all issues set to be addressed by June 2028.
Since the time frame addressed in the consent order, ECUA has reported a couple of hundred spills to DEP. They are due to everything from grease to line-breaks, and range from a few gallons to a June 2011 spill—due to a break—that released millions of gallons of sewage in Thompson Bayou.