Valdosta Daily Times

March 3, 2013

Money saved at river’s expense

EPD investigates cause of sewage release as waters recede

Jason Schaefer
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — As the floodwaters recede, the City of Valdosta Utilities Department continues to assess the recent damage to the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant and Valdosta municipal sewer system in light of the city’s decision to shut much of the plant down rather than try to protect it as they did in 2009.

When the flooding occurred in April 2009, the City made extraordinary efforts to hold back the flooding, bringing in dirt and heavy machinery to build a berm around the influent pump station and other treatment equipment, working round the clock.

The efforts were successful. The treatment plant remained on during the duration of the flood, and Valdosta’s raw sewage remained contained, though the facility incurred damages to its electrical and biological purification systems, according to Utilities Director Henry Hicks.

This year, the City opted for a different approach—cut electricity to the underwater portions of the plant, submit to the flooding and clean up afterwards.

The plant was “taken offline” Thursday at 9 a.m. “to prevent further damage to equipment and associated electrical and control systems,” according to a statement issued by the Department of the City Manager.

The City stated that as a result of the shutdown, “untreated sewage will be discharging directly into the river” at a rate of between five and six million gallons of raw sewage per day.

In addition, the floodwaters were allowed into the plant and around the remaining portions of the berm that was constructed in 2009 during the rising flood. Only half of the berm now remains, as the other half was removed to allow access to the lower portions of the plant, Hicks said.

So far, this year’s response strategy seems to have saved the City money. In 2009, about $500,000 was spent in manpower, equipment and supplies to build the berm alone, and the plant, kept running, incurred significant damages though raw sewage was kept out of the river. This year, the money was not spent on the berm or to prevent the flooding, and at least 15 to 20 million gallons of raw sewage will have been released into the Withlacoochee by the time the plant is back online.

In 2009, the Federal Emergency Management Agency told the City to take the entire berm down that was constructed, saying it was a health hazard because it was soaked with sewage-contaminated water. FEMA offered to pay for the removal, but Utilities kept the remaining half in place to serve as a partial flood control device, according to Hicks.

“We said, ‘We don’t want your money,’ and we kept the berm because it gave us some form of protection,” Hicks said. “We didn’t think we’d see another flood like that, and we were hoping to have the plant moved anyway. At least it gave us some minor protection.”

The floodwaters rose to and around the half-berm this week, rendering it useless to block the water, and the City made no efforts to rebuild the missing half.

While the plant was flooded, the breakdown, cleanup and repair of wet equipment is projected to cost around $16,000, Hicks said, likely much less than the damages cost in 2009 when the plant remained operational.

Some of the equipment at the plant did remain on, which may allow a faster recovery than that of 2009.

Aeration equipment called “digesters,” which use air to mix living bacteria through black sludge to break down solids, received power during the flood to keep the culture alive and ready to receive more waste.

“We had to have the bacteria alive to start the process up again, or it would have taken weeks to get up and running again,” Hicks said.

Keeping the entire plant running during the flooding would have dumped the remaining bacteria out with the solid waste, according to Hicks. Rebuilding the bacteria population to working proportions takes time, which could have caused further problems for the City, he said.

However, the problem of costs incurred through fines from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) from the sewage spill could be significant, and the tainted Withlacoochee remains a health concern for Lowndes County as well as areas southward in Florida that the river feeds into.

The City may not be charged fines if the disaster can be claimed as an act of God, according to the EPD. This requires an investigation to find proof that the City did everything in its power to prevent the spill of raw sewage into the river.

“I was talking to our investigator earlier today, and it seems that it is an act of God so far,” Marzieh Shahbazaz, Municipal Compliance Manager, said Friday. “But if the spill was caused by neglect, or they could have done something to prevent it, there would be enforcement action.”

To avoid fines and other enforcement actions, cities are required by the EPA to respond to floods to prevent sewage spills with “any and all” preventative measures, provided no one is put in harm’s way, Shahbazaz explained further.

The EPA’s decision could come as early as Monday, Shahbazaz said, and repairs to the Withlacoochee plant could begin as soon as today, according to Hicks.

Editor Kay Harris contributed to this story.


Potential health risks

The health risks associated with exposure to raw sewage, according to the EPA, include hepatitis, gastroenteritis, along with skin, wound, respiratory and ear infections. While ingesting contaminated water is the most common cause of these illnesses,  “they may also be contracted through inhalation of water vapors, eating contaminated fish.. and swimming. The most common symptoms are diarrhea and nausea.”

The EPA’s 2011 directive for “Keeping Raw Sewage & Contaminated Stormwater Out of the Public’s Water,” following the guidelines of the Clean Water Act, show that occasional combined sewer overflows or CSO’s are common following rain events, but “they pose risks to human health, threaten aquatic habitats and life, and impair the use and enjoyment of the nation’s waterways.”

As part of the directive, all local governments are required to conform to the CSO policy, which states that they must follow Nine Minimum Technology-Based Controls,

including “Proper operation and regular maintenance programs of the sewer system and CSOs.”

Since the 2009 flood event, the city has applied three times to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding to make major improvements to the sewer system, move and rebuild the plant at a cost of more than $90 million. FEMA denied the city’s requests each time.

At this time, the sewage discharge is also a potential risk to the city’s drinking water supply. According to information provided by the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the Upper Floridan aquifer is the sole source of water supply for Valdosta and much of the surrounding area. The aquifer “receives large volumes of direct discharge from the Withlacoochee River through sinkholes in the streambed or off-channel.”

The USPS states,”The strong connection between the Withlacoochee River and ground water in the Valdosta area has created concerns about the potential for contamination of groundwater supplies by contaminants in the river.”

The water for residents and businesses in the city of Valdosta is filtered and monitored through the water treatment plant, and the city has not issued any warnings regarding drinking water.

At this time, the city has issued a statement cautioning citizens from “fishing, boating, swimming, or any contact with river water until the flood waters recede and the treatment plant returns to normal operation.”