Two recent disasters — the tsunami at Fukushima and Hurricane Sandy — show that shoreline infrastructure can easily result in extensive ocean pollution. With sea levels rising rapidly, this problem could quickly become significantly greater.
The severe damage at the nuclear plant at Fukushima, following a massive earthquake and tsunami, was in many ways a worst-case scenario. The facility sat directly next to the Pacific Ocean, making it unusually susceptible to the tsunami's rising water. Earlier this month, Tokyo Electric Power Company revealed that 120 tons — 32,000 gallons — of radioactive water had escaped from containment systems, though that water was unlikely to have reached the ocean.
Today, The New York Times explains that the problem persists, albeit in reverse. Groundwater is flowing into the facility's reactors at the rate of 75 gallons a minute, prompting Tepco to scramble to build storage containers to hold the now-irradiated water once removed. "While the company has managed to stay ahead," the paper reports, "the constant threat of running out of storage space has turned into what Tepco itself called an emergency, with the sheer volume of water raising fears of future leaks at the seaside plant that could reach the Pacific Ocean."
Tepco's original plan was to filter radioactive particles out of the water and dump it into the ocean. That plan was scrapped.
The dumping plans have now been thwarted by what some experts say was a predictable problem: a public outcry over tritium, a relatively weak radioactive isotope that cannot be removed from the water.
Tritium, which can be harmful only if ingested, is regularly released into the environment by normally functioning nuclear plants, but even Tepco acknowledges that the water at Fukushima contains about 100 times the amount of tritium released in an average year by a healthy plant.
In March of 2012, ASR, a marine consultancy, created an animation showing where in the Pacific Ocean radioactive particles from Fukushima had already been detected.
After Sandy hit the East Coast six months ago yesterday, there was contamination of a different sort: sewage. Climate Central reported on the leaks.
[D]ata from the eight hardest hit states shows that 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into rivers, bays, canals, and in some cases, city streets, largely as a result of record storm-surge flooding that swamped the region’s major sewage treatment facilities. To put that in perspective, 11 billion gallons is equal to New York’s Central Park stacked 41 feet high with sewage, or more than 50 times the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The site created a graphic showing how much sewage leaked from various facilities.
One-third of the sewage was untreated. Ninety-four percent of the leak stemmed from flood damage.
Sandy flooding resulted in a lot of infrastructural damage beyond just sewage treatment plants, of course: flooded subway tunnels, destroyed electrical facilities. That damage had more significant effects on the local community. But with sea levels rising even faster than predicted, the disasters in Japan and New York City demonstrate that it isn't just physical structures that are at risk. Keeping polluted water stored along our coasts from connecting to the ocean will be an increased — and expensive — challenge.