Organic Consumers Association

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What's Floating in the River

Human waste is being dumped straight into local rivers and streams and 13 Investigates has the video to prove it. As part of a six-month investigation, Bob Segall travels beneath the city to show you the source of this dirty problem, the mind-boggling amount of pollution involved, and the staggering price you'll pay -- every month -- to fix it.

Indianapolis - It's a rainy fall morning and the White River looks particularly murky.

There's good reason.

The dark, sludgy stuff that's floating down the river is coming straight from someone's toilet.

Dirty little secret?


Indianapolis and more than 100 other Indiana towns openly admit they dump human waste into scenic rivers and streams.

But 13 Investigates found few people know how, when or why this problem is happening. And like most other Hoosiers, you probably don't realize how much raw sewage is being dumped and the huge price you'll be paying to bring the problem under control.


Outdated sewers are to blame for the massive problem.

Indianapolis and many other Midwestern cities built their sewer system almost 100 years ago. Back then, sewers were designed to handle both wastewater from your home and storm water from the street together in the same sewer pipes. The "combined sewer" lines lead to each city's wastewater treatment plant, and they work well -- as long as it doesn't rain.

But during a rainstorm, hundreds of millions of gallons of rainwater quickly rush into the combined sewers. To prevent the treatment plant from being overwhelmed, stormwater and raw sewage are dumped into local rivers and streams through relief tunnels that were built into the system. The dumping is called a "combined sewer overflow" or CSO, and Indianapolis is one of the nation's top CSO perpetrators.

Mind-boggling numbers

Each year, the city of Indianapolis dumps between six and seven billion -- that's billion with a B! -- gallons of raw, untreated waste into Eagle Creek, Fall Creek, Pleasant Run, Pogues Run and the White River. (Six to seven billion of anything is hard to imagine, so think about this: To transport 6.5 billion gallons of gasoline, you'd need a line of gasoline tanker trucks stretching bumper-to-bumper from Indianapolis to Honolulu -- and back again!)

The dumping takes place about 60 times each year at more than 130 locations throughout Marion County.

"I see 'em all the time," said Tom White, a senior project manager with the Indianapolis Department of Public Works. "Anytime it rains more than a quarter of an inch, these combined sewers can overflow and I see hundreds of them a year."

The dumping occurs statewide in large communities like Muncie, Anderson and Fort Wayne, and in smaller towns like Noblesville, Brownsburg and Plainfield. All together, about 40 billion gallons of combined sewer overflow are dumped into Indiana waterways each year.


In some cases, sewage is slightly treated to kill bacteria and to remove floatables from the wastewater.

What are floatables?

"Exactly what you can imagine floatables are, that's what they are. Things that are floating in the sewage," explained Mark Jacob, a wastewater engineering consultant who works with the city of Indianapolis and its DPW Clean Stream Team.

But in most cases, what's coming out of CSO pipes is raw, untreated waste -- floatables and all.

Environmentalist Dick Van Frank took 13 Investigates for a walk along Fall Creek to point out the many floatables he sees first hand.

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