Would barrels of alcohol dumped into sewers harm the environment?

Prohibition is now 100 years old. Could the liquor raids of the era have affected sewers, or the environment, or both?

Prohibition is officially a century old. Photos from the era are a treasure trove of straw hats and suited authorities emptying barrel after barrel of liquor into sewers outside of saloons and speakeasies.

Seeing these, we asked our Environmental Services staff: What impact — environmental or otherwise — would tremendous amounts of alcohol have if it entered our sewers all at the same time?

It’s not a wholly irrelevant question either since a Kentucky bourbon warehouse collapsed over the summer, sending thousands of barrels of liquor crashing to the ground and posing risk to local waterways.

“With a [sewer] system as large as ours,” said Superintendent of Environmental Services Scott Broski, “it would have to be a very large spill” to have an impact on our treatment processes. “The potential [environmental] hazard in the collection system would probably be the bigger concern.”

He says this because of the effect alcohol has on aquatic life, which is what officials feared in the Kentucky collapse. In small doses, scientists say it can lead fish to exhibit “anti-social behavior.” The flow to local creeks from the warehouse collapse killed about 800 fish.

A wastewater analyst conducts toxicity testing in our state-certified laboratory.

That’s a more immediate concern in separate-sewer communities where storm sewers discharge untreated flow directly into the environment. In combined-sewer areas like Cleveland and inner-ring suburbs, the stormwater and sanitary sewage flow in the same pipe, which means the combined flow would be highly diluted and eventually treated at a wastewater treatment plant, posing less if any environmental risk.

“Dilution would be a factor” in that case, Broski said. “The microorganisms [in the biological treatment process] would likely consume the waste as food,” which is one stage of the treatment process.

As for large doses of alcohol introduced directly to waterways, it depletes oxygen levels in the water. But our lab’s Quality Assurance Control Specialist Sheela Agrawal indicated that is based on ethanol research specifically. “High-strength and large quantities, as might happen in a spill, could be an issue in terms of acute toxicity and oxygen depletion.”

While we don’t have records of if or how any 1920s alcoholic deluge actually affected the environment at the time, we can say many practices in place in the early 1900s put Cleveland’s water resources in a precarious position, culminating with the Cuyahoga River fire in 1969.

Since then, the work of individuals and organizations like ours have led to a rebirth of our river and lake, a rebirth that continues to this day.

Cheers to that.