Column: Paying a High Personal Price for Important Public Progress

  • A two-year project in Lebanon, N.H., that will separate sewer and rain water drainage is underway along Mechanic Street on April 30, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 8/18/2018 10:19:24 PM

As I write this, my house is shaking. Jackhammers shatter rocks and pavement while heavy equipment — bulldozers, earthmovers, dump trucks — move back and forth on the “road” beneath my window, not more than 12 feet from where I sit. This is all part of what is known as the “combined sewer overflow” project being carried out in Lebanon.

If you have not experienced it, you have no idea. Maybe you noticed it if you have driven through Lebanon on Mechanic Street recently, where the signs honestly warn you to “expect delays.”

But if you live on the affected streets, or have a business there, you have constant noise, dust and delays. Getting out of your driveway sometimes requires the help of several courteous workers. Sidewalks have all but disappeared.

You only notice it when it happens to you.

According to Christina Hall, Lebanon’s city engineer, the combined sewer overflow project — or CSO, for short — was mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000. Cities that discharge overflow sewage into a waterway must eliminate or minimize that problem, and they must do so by 2020. Lebanon joins cities such as Manchester and Portsmouth in undertaking these projects, which are paid for mainly with local tax money, supplemented by some federal and state grants.

Under a consent decree involving federal, state and local officials, Lebanon has been working on the project in parts of Lebanon and West Lebanon for the past several years. The current project is No. 11. There have been 10 in previous years. Project No. 12 will occur next year.

At the moment, Lebanon’s very old sewers drain both rainwater and sewage. During heavy rains, the combined overflow goes into the Mascoma River. When the project is completed, the rainwater will continue to go into the river, but the sewage will not.

This, by all accounts, is progress.

But the price of progress is significant. Project No. 11 will cost more than $12 million. The bill for the whole CSO project is a projected $69 million. And the emotional cost is also great. As Hall told me, “It’s tough on everyone.”

The destruction and reconstruction, digging up the street and filling it back in on a daily basis, for this phase of the project alone, began in May and will continue until winter sets it. The finishing touches, Hall said — a new sidewalk, and so on — probably will not be done until next year. This phase alone is really a two-year project. No. 12 also will affect Mascoma and Mechanic streets.

“The majority of people have been really good about being tolerant,” Hall said, despite their frustration.

Sometimes the roads are impassable. Sometimes a driveway is inaccessible. Construction workers are as accommodating as possible, but water sometimes must be cut off, temporary pipes must be laid and drainage is interrupted. Always, constantly, from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m., except weekends and holidays, there is dust and noise.

And there seems to be no end to it.

When this project is over, the bridge over the Mascoma River in the center of Lebanon will need to be repaired. And then a roundabout will be constructed at the junction of High Street, Mechanic Street and Mascoma Street. That will stretch on well beyond 2020.

As the story goes, a fellow was asked why he kept hitting himself in the head with a hammer. He replied: “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

I’m afraid this particular hammering won’t stop for a while.

Richard R. Crocker is the college chaplain emeritus of Dartmouth College. He lives in Lebanon.

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