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End-of-life decisions for America's aging infrastructure

End-of-life decisions for America's aging infrastructure
© getty: Road closures are seen at Moccasin Wallow Road and 28th Avenue East due to a possible wastewater breach at the former Piney Point phosphate plant on April 5, 2021 in Gillette, Florida.

As the federal government and states announce plans to overhaul America’s infrastructure, Florida is recovering from the near-collapse of a phosphate-laden wastewater pond. While the pond didn’t fail catastrophically and flood more than 300 homes and businesses as feared, it did require high-cost emergency measures, evacuations and the routing of millions of gallons of untreated waste into Tampa Bay. 

The situation in Florida is not unusual. It should remind us of the costs and consequences of ignoring our vast, aging and often obsolete infrastructure, just like the Piney Point wastewater pond. However, decommissioning obsolete infrastructure presents an unusual opportunity to decrease long-term government spending, improve public safety and restore the environment. 

U.S. infrastructure expanded dramatically in the mid-20th century, and now includes more than 91,000 dams, nearly 30,000 miles of levees,  4 million miles of roads, nearly 50,000 community water systems and 800,000 miles of sewer pipe. It also includes many wastewater ponds like that in Florida, and similar coal ash ponds peppering the landscape that have collapsed in Alabama, Wisconsin, and North Carolina over the past decade. Many structures have been in place for 50 years or more, and an increasing portion of national infrastructure — public and private — is approaching or exceeding its originally intended design life. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates a price tag in the trillions of dollars to reach acceptable levels of infrastructure safety and function

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While most infrastructure remains critical to the national economy, a surprising amount is obsolete, yet still requires ongoing costs to monitor and maintain. Of nearly 400,000 miles of road on its lands, the U.S. Forest Service considers one-fourth nonessential. Similarly, over 11,000 dams are abandoned, yet they must be inspected and maintained each year. For instance, three U.S. Corps of Engineers lock-and-dams on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina cost more than $500,000 per year to maintain and operate. Yet, they have not experienced commercial barge traffic since 1995. 

Aging and ignored infrastructure also poses safety hazards and exacerbates costly disasters. The wastewater pond in Florida will require another $15.4 million to treat wastewater as the uncertain situation continues. Similarly, a levee built in the 1890s on the Wisconsin River, known to be structurally unstable for many years, failed in 2010. The levee failure put 100 homes at risk and required state and locally funded emergency operations. Similar dam failures and near-failures during recent hurricanes in the Southeast forced emergency managers to focus on old, obsolete infrastructure at a time when their attention needed to be elsewhere. Proactive decommissioning of these types of infrastructure could dramatically reduce long-term spending at all levels of government while improving public safety. 

Decommissioning infrastructure can also benefit the environment. Construction and operation of dams, roads and mines over the past century has wrought tremendous environmental damage. Decommissioning obsolete infrastructure can provide unique opportunities to restore degraded ecosystems at a fraction of the cost of other environmental restoration programs. Already, removing small dams has triggered rapid recovery of migratory fish populations in rivers across the U.S.

Similarly, levee removal improves floodplain habitat, decreases downstream flood levels and enhances water quality. Road removal in the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, has restored fragmented forest ecosystems while protecting drinking water quality at its source. And proactive decommissioning the long-obsolete Piney Point wastewater pond would have avoided the routing of millions of gallons of untreated waste over the past weeks.

While decommissioning and removing infrastructure can reduce long-term, chronic costs, it does pose short-term costs and logistical challenges. Costs for removing dams can be as low as tens of thousands of dollars for the thousands of small dams in the U.S. Or they can exceed tens of millions of dollars for larger structures, as in the case for the removal of two dams on the Elwha River in Washington state. State lawmakers in Florida are already setting aside $100 million for the initial installment to clean up the Piney Point site. Further, a decommissioning program for U.S. Forest Service roads would likely cost $10,000 per mile for almost tens of thousands of miles of roads. Cleanup of contaminated sites, such as former manufacturing or military facilities, could run into the billions of dollars. 

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While these costs are substantial, continuing to ignore aging and obsolete infrastructure is not an option. Dams will continue to fail, wastewater ponds and coal ash piles will collapse into rivers, and unused roads will continue to erode sediment into our water supplies. 

The price of rehabilitating or removing such systems will only rise over time, along with the hazard of leaving at-risk, unused infrastructure in place. As we focus on future infrastructure needs, investing in decommissioning and removing aging, obsolete infrastructure should be part of the package. 

Martin Doyle is a professor at Duke University, and author of “The Source: How Rivers Made America and America Remade its Rivers” (WW Norton). His research focuses on environmental finance and infrastructure.