The Sewer Crisis: an Ethical Dilemma

The Sewer Crisis: an Ethical Dilemma

Emily Zapinski


Emily Zapinski ()


Emily Zapinski


Emily Zapinski


As cities become more populated, more pressure is put on aging infrastructure to keep up with increasing demand for electricity, clean water, public transportation, and waste management. One main issue has arisen over the past few years: the combined sewage system. Most sewage systems in the United States were designed and implemented in the early twentieth century, making them ineffective and very difficult to replace by today’s standards. Making changes to existing sewer systems in order to keep up with more volumes of wastewater can be costly and difficult. Pittsburgh is experiencing combined sewage overflows, an event where the sewer system overflows and leaks raw sewage into nearby rivers and streams. The sewer authority of Pittsburgh has been tasked with coming up with a solution that will address the issue. The process of coming up with an effective solution is not an easy one and questions of ethics have arisen regarding the spending of public funds as well as a questionable method used in order to gain the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency.


The sewer system and treatment plant is one of the most important parts of a developed area; however, many sewer systems were designed and implemented decades ago, using primitive technology and with the intention of servicing only a few thousand people.Many of these early systems built were combined sewage systems, which has, over time, proven to be a highly ineffective method. For areas with combined sewage systems, in which raw sewage and storm water are transported to a water treatment plant in a singular pipe, the rush of storm water, combined with the sewage in the same system, results in a combined sewage overflow. In the event of a combined sewage overflow, raw sewage is forced out of the combined pipe system through directly connected manholes and drainage openings. This leakage can flowinto nearby bodies of water and even flood residential basements, resulting in contamination and the spread of bacteria and viruses to areas that are not at all intended to be exposed to such [1].

Like many other cities’ sewage system, Pittsburgh’s combined sewage system was designed in the early twentieth century. The city has grown since the sewage system was put into place, and now many more families, businesses, and nearby municipalities rely on Pittsburgh’s decades-old sewage system. The damaging effects of Pittsburgh’s failing sewage system become apparent when looking at the region’s rivers. Unfortunately, the rivers become unsanitary in the summer months due to sewage overflow and Allegheny County must issue a river advisory warning visitors to limit any contact with river water. River advisories have been issued and lasted approximately 70 days every summer since 1995. Moreover, 3 Rivers Wet Weather describes the situation as a public health issue: “While exposure to disease-causing organisms, such as giardia or cryptosporidium, are not considered fatal for a healthy adult, they can be deadly for those with weaker immune systems, the elderly and small children. In addition, Pittsburgh’s three rivers serve as the main source of drinking water for 90% of Allegheny County residents” [1].

The task of finding a solution is closely related to engineering macroethics, a term used to describe the shared goal among engineers to treat large-scale public projects with the utmost importance because of the high number of people impacted by the decisions and changes [2]. Engineers and city officials are struggling to find solutions that are viable and will stop combined sewage overflow permanently. On one hand, the engineers and planners are faced with what seems like an impossible situation: repairing an old, delicate sewage system that spans for miles, transports thousands of gallons of water, and plays a daily role in millions of people’s lives. In addition, the engineers must come up with a solution that does not involve repairing the entirety of the sewage system directly, but a supplemental aspect that will help take the heavy load off the sewage system. The sewage system cannot be repaired or replaced directly because it is miles underneath developed areas, and it would be nearly impossible to reach and repair without severely disrupting the developed areas above. One the other hand, the residents of Pittsburgh deserve a functioning sewer system that does not pollute the rivers and pose a public health threat.


The push to solve Pittsburgh’s combined sewage overflow problem came when the US Environmental Protection Agency, the PA Department of Environmental Protection, and the Allegheny County Health Department issued a consent degree to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN), on the grounds that ALCOSAN was not complying with the regulations laid down by the Clean Water Act and Combined Sewer Overflow Control Policy [3]. The Clean Water Act regulates the discharge of pollutants into waterways. The Clean Water Act also made it illegal to discharge pollutants from a man-made source into a waterway without a permit [4].The Combined Sewage Overflow Control Policy is an additional EPA-issued document that acts as a guide to municipalities and officials on how to realistically make changes to water treatment that will result in compliance with the Clean Water Act [5].

Suddenly, Pittsburgh’s combined sewage overflow problem has become a federal problem.As ALCOSAN does not have a permit that allows the combined sewage overflows, something must be done to address the issue. More specifically, the federal order demands that the combined sewage overflow problem be completely remedied by 2026 [6].

Finding a solution has proven to be no easy task for my team of civil and environmental engineers here at ALCOSAN. I lead the team of engineers in coming up with solutions, and we propose the solutions to the director from the Department of Engineered Solutions. If she approves the plan, then we submit the plan to EPA for federal approval. Not only do we have to come up with an effective method that puts an end to the combined sewage overflow, but we also need to be concerned with the financial aspect, as well as legal issues on the city, state, and federal level.

It has taken us many years. But my team has come up with a solution that we think could drastically improve the combined sewage overflow situation. The solution relies heavily on gray infrastructure, which means it involves constructing larger collection pipes in some areas that eventually feed into three immense underground storm water storage tanks. ALCOSAN, the water treatment plant, will also be expanded, so it will be able to treat larger amounts of water at a time. Overall, the projected cost is around $2 billion, and only addresses 79 percent of the combined sewage overflow. A previous plan accounted for 100 percent of the problem, but at a cost of $3.6 billon, the plan was deemed too expensive [7].

Though my team and I have worked tirelessly on trying to come up with a solution, there is no perfect answer. The current plan, though our best one yet, has some significant shortcomings. The cost is very large, and the funding will come from increased taxes, which is always a detriment to taxpayers. The people of Pittsburgh are funding this project, and as engineers, my team and I have to come up with a solution that will effectively solve the sewage issue. This has been an enormous weight to try and grapple with. The longer it takes to find a solution, the more our rivers are polluted. If we make a mistake in the plans or something goes wrong with throughout the building process, it could potentiallyleave residents withoutclean water, while costing them even more money. Needless to say, many engineers, myself included, are very aware of the serious negative outcomes that could arise throughout the completion of this project. My team and I serve the people of Pittsburgh, and any mistakes in our work could compromise not only our integrity as engineers, but also the entire community of Pittsburgh.

Another issue with our proposed plan is that it lacks green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is the use of nature-based innovations like rain gardens, bioswales, urban forests, and permeable pavement that help decrease the volume of storm water that enters the sewage system. Rain gardens, bioswales, and urban forests direct storm water into depressed areas where water-loving plants, like perennials, painted ferns, and white cedar trees, soak up the storm water. If less water is directed into the sewage system during a storm, the sewer system will be able to manage the increased volume of water without overflowing. Many residents, non-profit organizations, and community leaders have called for the implementation of green infrastructure into our solution plan in order to lower the cost and cater to wants of the community. However, ALCOSAN is wary of incorporating important aspects of the plan that are not guaranteed because they rely on third parties. For example, if my team of engineers plans around the fact that a certain volume of water will be redirected to a rain garden built by a community, but for some reason a complication arises and the rain garden is not built, then the design plan is now inaccurate and faulty. The topic of green infrastructure presents a difficult ethical dilemma because my team serves the community’s needs and interests, but it is also very important to ensure that the solution we come up with will work under a variety of conditions.

The final, and arguably most difficult hurdle that my team and I need to overcome is the fact that in order for construction to begin and the combined sewage overflow problem be fixed, our plan needs to be approved by the EPA. My team and I are a group of genuinely good engineers who are dedicated to solving this issue and improving our community. Unfortunately, I cannot say that this is true of all people involved with this project. My boss has become increasingly concerned with her job security and trying to improve ALCOSAN’s public image. She has asked me to skew some test results to show that out plan is more effective than it really is, in order to get theEPA approval. Yes, the changes would result in EPA approval, but they would be inaccurate, and the plan would not actually solve the combined sewage overflow problem as well as it had claimed to. Were I to follow my boss’s orders and change the results, I would be compromising my job, as well as the job of every person on my team.When faced with a difficult dilemma such as this, it is important to remember why one became an engineer and the codes of ethics that one promised to uphold upon becoming an engineer.


In order to get a better idea of what the correct way to process would be, I re-read the National Society of Professional Engineer’s Code of Ethics as well as the Code of Ethics for the American Society of Civil Engineers. The first canon listed in the National Society’s Code says that engineers shall “Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” [8]. This first principle is very relevant to the issue and decision-making process. This project is designed to serve and better the community. That means my team and I must be very careful in planning this publicly funded project. The opinions and wants of the community should be kept in mind at all times when working to come up with an effective solution. Similarly, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Code says “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable developmentin the performance of their professional duties.” It goes on to say that engineers should be committed to improving the environment and that sustainable development “enhances the quality of life of the general public” [9]. This canon directly relates to the issue of green infrastructure’s in the issue. The canon clearly states that sustainable development, which includes green infrastructure, should be incorporated into projects. Additionally, the public strongly supports incorporating the green infrastructure.The canon also stresses that the safety and welfare is the most important aspect of a project. In the given situation, these values seem to be conflicting. Incorporating green infrastructure could compromise public safety. Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer, even when keeping the Codes in mind.

The Codes regarding the other issue in question are more definite. According to the NSPE Code of Ethics, engineers should avoid deceptive acts and act responsibly and honorably [8]. There’s no doubt that altering test results, like my boss has asked me to do, would violate these two canons. The ASCE Code of Ethics states that engineers “shall act with zero-tolerance for bribery, fraud, and corruption” [9]. The Codes clearly express that manipulating the test results would be very wrong. They do not specify, however, how one should proceed if asked by their boss to be involved in fraud. Thankfully, many articles have been written to guide engineers when they are faced with tough ethical dilemmas.

Most engineering ethics issues are not black and white and are tough decisions to make. When the American Academy of Mechanical Engineers surveyed engineers around the United States about ethical dilemmas, most said they would discuss the issue with a supervisor. That would be difficult, as my supervisor is the one asking me to perform the questionable act. Others suggested confronting the individual, which would also be difficult, because my job depends on my boss, and I would like to keep my job. The next popular option was to bring the issue to attention to the senior management, which would be the managers who are in charge of my boss [10]. Though this method has a possibility of backfiring if my boss denies the allegations, I agree and think that honesty is the best policy. In a different article, Ed Harris, an ethics of engineering professor at Texas A&M University argues that the best approach to ethics in engineering is to stress the positive factors of engineering accomplishments, rather than focus on methods that prevent misconduct and abuses. A more open and welcoming work environment can help brighten the outlook and discourage malpractice more effectively than harsh punishments [2]. I agree with Dr. Harris, but switching to a more positive outlook can be difficult to achieve when you and your team are under immense pressure to come up with an all-inclusive, multi-billion dollar solution that will be approved. This article was well intentioned but a little unrealistic, given the circumstances.

Lastly, I looked up two additional articles that seemed like they may be helpful when coming up with a solution. The articles appeared in a newspaper and featured a story similar to ours: a city experiencing a combined sewage overflow problem that had been brought to the attention of the EPA. The first article detailed this city’s outline and solution to the combined sewage overflow issue, which closely followed the CSO Control Policy [7]. The second article revealed that the city’s plan had been rejected and took an approach that focused more on the perspectives and opinions of the surrounding community [6]. Because the city’s plan failed to pass inspection, the articles were not of much use to me from a technical standpoint. The articles did help me to realize that no one expects me to come up with a perfect solution because there is no perfect solution. The members of the Pittsburgh community are ready and willing to assist in any way that can. A solution needs to be procured, but I realized that people understand the tough position I am in and want to help.


After spending many hours thinking about and researching my current situation, I believe I have reached my decision, or at least what I think I will do. In regard to dealing with my boss, I will talk to the senior management, the people who are in charge of my boss. I feel that bringing my boss’s questionable request to the attention of our superiors is the correct thing to do. This will help ensure that no one from the community is impacted by any engineer’s bad decision. As for dealing with the community desires and allocating the funds in a responsible way, I think safety and welfare override the importance of green infrastructure. Stopping the combined sewage overflows in a safe manner is the main concern of this project, however I do think a community outreach program could be very beneficial and I would like to incorporate green infrastructure into the design plan in any way possible.