By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - When Superstorm Sandy hit the U.S. East Coast on October 29, it inundated low-lying pump stations with silt and seawater at the sewage treatment plant in Sayerville, New Jersey.
As a result, sewage burst up from manholes into the streets. In total darkness, two divers swam into about 25 feet of raw sewage for hours at a time to fix a 6,000-pound cast iron flow-control gate.
Now six months later, local and state officials across New Jersey and New York hope to use $569 million of grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make sure they don't have to go through that again in future storms.
The EPA announced details of how the grants will work on Thursday, along with guidance to states about how to apply. Congress approved the funding in January as part of a $50.5 billion federal disaster aid appropriation.
The grants came in about $30 million less than planned because of spending cuts under the federal budget cuts known as sequestration, EPA regional administrator Judith Enck said in a call with reporters.
New Jersey will get $229 million, while New York will get $340 million, or about 60 percent of the total, she said.
About 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage flowed into waterways in eight states due to Sandy - enough to flood Manhattan's Central Park 41-feet deep with wastewater, according to a report on Tuesday from the nonprofit research group Climate Central.
New York and New Jersey accounted for more than 94 percent of sewage overflows from Sandy, the report said.
The EPA grants will help local governments, through their states' revolving loan funds, finance projects to better protect their drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities. The funding will also create about 6,000 short-term construction jobs, the EPA said.
At the Middlesex County Utilities Authority, which operates the Sayerville sewage plant, officials hope to use the funds to better protect some of its 900 horsepower pumps, which are the size of small cars.
Those measures could include building a berm, putting in flood gates where there are openings, and extending concrete up the side of structures where there is now more porous brick, according to the authority's executive director, Richard Fitamant.
Some of the pump stations were built in the 1950s and 1960s, when flood elevations were much lower. Eventually, those stations may need to be relocated out of flood zones altogether - a project that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, Fitamant told Reuters.
Another looming problem for the region that the current EPA grants will not address: expensive equipment damaged by saltwater that was cleaned and put back into use.
"The concern is that you don't get all the salt out of the equipment," Fitamant said. "All this equipment is compromised."
The EPA money also isn't targeting repair costs. In Nassau County on New York's Long Island, operators of the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant have said they need $600 million just for repairs - money that is ultimately expected to come from other federal agencies.
Angela Anderson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement that the federal government needed a broader, nationwide plan to handle rising oceans, and that handing out grants was "slapping a Band-Aid on a much larger problem."
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)