Big Fix: Buried power lines, anyone?

Big storms, falling trees, downed power lines, cracks in old pipes, raw sewage flowing into rivers — I'd be glad to join Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in prayer to ward off such calamities, but I have a more practical idea: Convert some of the billions we're spending on national defense to fixing the country's wiring and plumbing.

I'd spring for replacing the covered bridges Vermont lost in last weekend's big storm, too.


About the power line thing: Tesla, Edison and Westinghouse started engineering electrical power systems in the late 19th century, before my grandmother was born. Here we are in the 21st century, and we still have overheard power lines running from pole to pole to pole, all across the fruited plain. Of course, we don't think of this as anachronistic because we've grown up with this scheme. Power lines are part of the landscape; we don't notice them until them come down.

But what do you think Tom Edison, Nick Tesla or George Westinghouse, the original combatants in the War of the Currents, would have said?


If you could have brought them back from the dead (you know, with electricity), put them in separate limousines (you know, so they wouldn't fight) and drove them around Baltimore County last week, they'd have been appalled.

As they surveyed hardworking BGE hard-hats cutting through fallen trees and raising power lines, they'd have said we've been foolish or lazy or cheap — that overhead wires make no long-term sense, given the odds for natural disasters to disrupt service to millions of households, businesses and institutions.

By now, of course, we've seen this happen thousands of times — most recently with Hurricane Irene, which knocked out power to about 7 million homes and businesses — and what do we do?

We maintain status quo: lots of overhead power lines everywhere you look. Power restored. Life goes on.

But why settle for this? Why not take some of the billions we no longer need for national defense and, with massive subsidies to utilities, put Americans to work burying power lines?

Burying power lines costs about 10 times what it costs to run them overhead, according to Ted Kury, director of energy studies at the University of Florida. "The cost is going to depend on the geography and the density of the region," he told NPR last week. "A rule of thumb that we use down here in Florida is roughly a million dollars per mile."

That kind of math takes the breath away. But what's the alternative? More costly repairs in a future that, with climate change, will pack more of nature's punch and pull down more power lines, over and over again? Makes no sense.

At least, with our plumbing problems, we're already spending some money to catch up. But we have a long way to go, and every community in the country should get behind a Pentagon-to-Plumbing transfer.


Look at what happens when big weather pummels our old pipes:

Sunday, Aug. 14: A rainstorm caused a sewage overflow at Baltimore's Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Essex. It lasted nearly two hours, between noon and 2 p.m. An estimated 2.4 million gallons of sewage spilled into Back River, leading Baltimore County to post warnings at the beaches at Rocky Point as well as Cox's Point and Edgemere parks. The rain overwhelmed cracked sewer lines, and the treatment plant couldn't handle the flow. There's a multimillion-dollar effort — paid for, in part, with Maryland's progressive "flush tax" — to fix those pipes to keep this from happening so frequently. But there's still plenty of work to do on these old sanitary systems, here and across the country, as the Environmental Protection Agency finally cracks down on river pollution.

Sunday, Aug. 29: As Irene stormed through the region, a pipeline between a pumping station in Baltimore County and the city's Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant ruptured and spilled more than 70 million gallons of sewage into the Patapsco River. The county had to spend $250,000 to repair the pipe.

Just a couple of months ago, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson visited the poor Patapsco to announce a new federal initiative to clean up the river. But, of course, she could offer no new federal funds.

I know a good place to find some. All in favor, say "aye."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. His email is