PBS correpondent brings new meaning to ‘muckraker’ in Detroit sewers

PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien proved just how far he’s willing to go for a story as he plumbed the murky depths of Detroit, Mich.’s sewer system.

His report on the problems facing America’s waste water infrastructure and the various methods being explored to improve it took him below the city streets to a world of unsung heroes, strange new smells, and looming challenges for the Great Lakes region and the nation.

Watch A Journey to Confront Our Aging Water Systems on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

  • Harold

    Ah…that video sure brought back unpleasant memories of being a City inspector long ago. Luckily, the smells didn’t come through with the video!

    What I found remarkable while on the job was that many of the oldest Detroit sewers–built in the late 1800s and early 1900s–were in the best shape. These weren’t concrete sewers but, rather, sewer lines made of several courses of brick, often in an oval or egg-shaged configuration. The shape helped to move sediment through the sewer, helping to keep it clean (relatively, speaking, of course).

    Some of the most unique sights included albino cockroaches which had lost their coloration after so many generations living underground, similar to many cave-dwelling species. Sewers are truly a unique environment.

    What is rarely mentioned in relation to our infrastructure crisis, however, is our utter stupidity in using tax dollars to promote incessant urban sprawl. This requires billions of dollars in additional tax dollars to construct the new infrastructure requirements, while completely ignoring the maintenance needs of existing infrastructure. It also places added burdens upon the existing infrastructure since, in this example, most of the flow in the Detroit sewer system comes from beyond the City limits, greatly stressing the capacity and oftentimes resulting in sewer overflows–the so-called “combined sewer overflows” which pollute the Rouge River, Detroit River, Lake Erie and beyond.

    Another aspect which is never talked about is that in our urban river systems, many of the natural river tributaries have been enclosed in sewers–again at a cost of millions or billions of dollars–but, more importantly, taking away the natural purification systems for our water. Unfortunately, many civil engineers had very little or no understanding of natural ecosystems, or the role they played in water quality. Hence, we have built some very costly systems which have not always been best for the environment, for water quality, or for tax-paying citizens.