Plan Aims to Fix Sewers, but Its Cost to Residents Leaves a Bad Taste
By Julia Werdigier, NY Times, October 21, 2013
LONDON—On a particularly hot summer day in 1858, the smell of raw sewage from the River Thames became so unbearable that legislators had the curtains of the Houses of Parliament soaked in chloride of lime. When that failed to repel the odors, members of Parliament simply abandoned the place.
The leader of the House and chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli, “was seen fleeing from the chamber, his handkerchief to his nose,” according to Stephen Halliday in his history, “The Great Stink of London.”
At the time, nearly all of London’s sewage ended up in the Thames, which was also one of the city’s main sources for drinking water, and the city endured three cholera epidemics, which killed more than 31,000 people. The Thames stank famously, and many doctors and politicians believed that it was the stench itself that caused cholera.
Pressure grew to follow the recommendation of a prominent civil engineer, Joseph W. Bazalgette, to build a system of tunnels that would catch the sewage and divert it farther downstream, below the capital, and construction soon got under way. The tunnels of the 1,100-mile system—lined with 314 million bricks meticulously laid by Victorian masons—remain in surprisingly good condition today.
Built for a city half London’s current size, however, the system is now overflowing. As often as once a week, raw sewage is forced into the Thames, a sharp change from the 19th century, when the newly built system overflowed less than once a year.
The increasing flow of raw sewage—the result of the loss of green spaces to absorb rainwater as much as population gain—violates European environmental law, the European Commission said in 2009, and the government has promised to act.
But in an era of austerity and strained budgets, it is not the government that is paying the $6.6 billion bill but Thames Water, a private company with shareholders. The government is to underwrite the risk, which means that it will act as the financier of last resort in the case of major problems during the construction, but it will otherwise not pay for the new system.
There is a catch, of course: it is actually the customers of Thames Water who are paying for the project with higher water bills, a prospect almost as horrendous to today’s Londoners as the river’s stench was to their 19th-century forebears. Water bills for Thames Water’s 14 million customers in and around London are to rise to as much as $700 annually from $570 for the foreseeable future, the company said. The money will be used to repay the initial investors, who will also own the new system. And even then, the tunnel will remain the property of the company, a prospect that further rankles.
A variety of local politicians and industry experts say the plan is akin to pouring money down the drain, that construction estimates are far too low, and that there are cheaper and less disruptive alternatives. “The costs might end up at 10 billion pounds,” or about $16.16 billion, said Nicholas Botterill, council leader of Hammersmith and Fulham, districts in southwest London, “and I don’t want the country to waste that much money.”
It would also be unpleasant for people living close to the construction sites, he said. Even the engineer who initially planned the new sewage tunnel, Chris Binnie, is now saying two smaller and far less costly tunnels might suffice.
Mr. Bazalgette’s system cost about $6 million, now the equivalent of about $6 billion, according to Thames Water, but it transformed central London. For example, he narrowed the Thames by building Victoria Embankment, an elegant road and walkway that housed not only the sewerage tunnel but also one of the first subways.
The scope of today’s planned project is no less intimidating. The new tunnel would run mainly beneath the Thames to intercept sewage before it reached the river and to transport it to sewage treatment plants. The tunnel would be more than 15 miles long, more than 200 feet deep and large enough to fit three London double-decker buses next to one another.
Ann Rosenberg, a retired BBC journalist, lives a block away from one of the planned construction sites for the sewer in Parsons Green. “The thing that sticks in my throat,” she said, “is that I will be paying for this until I die, and then my children will pay for this tunnel, which none of us will own but which will go into the asset base of Thames Water and its investors.”
Michael Gerrard, the managing director of the sewerage project for Thames Water, said Londoners have to contribute to their city’s future. “If you want London to grow you must invest in the infrastructure,” he said. “If nothing is done you’ll have a public health issue.”