Hurricane Harvey caused all sorts of damage to oil refineries and storage facilities off the coast of Texas. However, that toxic release was minor when compared to Irma’s dump on Florida. Environmentalists and health officials are horrified by the amount of raw sewage wreaking havoc on the state after wastewater facilities were overrun by the storm.
As of last night, more than nine million gallons of untreated sewage has been channeled into streets, bays, and canals, flooding homes with filth. The unhygienic flow is inundated with bacteria and disease causing pathogens. Experts blame the population growth—some of the nation’s fastest growing counties are in the Hurricane zones—and poor upkeep of the country’s water treatment plants for creating the serious situation.
However, Nathan Gardner-Andrews who is chief advocacy officer for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies explained to reporters that “no sewer system in the world” is entirely leak-proof. He added that facilities are typically structured to process about twice their normal capacity in times of emergency, but when “you’re talking four to six to eight inches of rain in an hour” the engineering can’t cope with that sort of strain. In fact, it’s not possible to construct a plant that could.
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is keeping track of the sewage spread. The storm flooding has impacted both sewer systems and treatment facilities. In Middleburg on Tuesday, a pretreatment system overflowed, releasing about 250,000 gallons of untreated liquid into the surrounding area.
Workers desperately tried to block culverts and set up emergency pumping stations to channel wastewater out of ditches and back into treatment sites. Dennis Martin of the Clay County Utility Authority said, “We’ve never seen flooding like this.”
His sentiments are unfortunately exactly what many of the state’s water treatment plants are experiencing. In fact, they are particularly susceptible to rising water because facilities are typically built in low lying areas where treated water can be sent back into streams, canals, and other waterways. In normal conditions, that situation works well and allows the plant to operate more efficiently. However, during heavy rainfall, the possible seepage presents serious health risks.
Another facility in Clearwater spewed 1.6 million gallons of wastewater into a creek, according to filings with the state. After a power line snapped, pumps went offline causing the release. David Porter, the city’s public utilities director explained that a similar power outage led to a massive sewage dump after Hurricane Hermine in 2016. Thirty million gallons was spilled.
Essentially, the power outages during Irma are also responsible for raw sewage washing up in streets and waterways. St. Petersburg and Orlando each had lift station pump shut downs that were responsible for half-a-million gallons in overflow.
Officials at a Miami treatment plant reported that a whopping six million gallons of bacteria-laden sewage was dumped in the Biscayne Bay, making the air in Bayfront Park redolent with the stench.
Because of the spills, Florida is warning residents in a large number of counties to boil all drinking water. The dangers are simply too great to ignore. E-coli, hepatitis, typhoid and a host of other illnesses can result from drinking sewage contaminated water.
Health issues impact homes that have been flooded with wastewater too. Danielle Droitsch, a program director with the Natural Resources Defense Council said that understanding the risks is vital. “We don’t necessarily see the pollution, sometimes you can’t smell it and yet it’s there,” she said.
For now, the cleanup estimates are hard to figure. Rising waters will further strain Florida’s treatment systems and facilities, so residents can expect more sewage overflows before it ends.
The problems created by Hurricane Irma have raised serious concerns with the nation’s infrastructure condition. Obviously, new methods and designs for water treatment plants are needed, but even the most equipped facilities would be susceptible to flood overflows.
Local government officials are lobbying congress to allocate wastewater funds into broad infrastructure package. With these sort of storms causing such damage, they argue that taxpayers must fork up the funds to improve the resiliency of these plants. Given the location of the impacted areas, others argue that it’s the state’s responsibility to channel funds to their own utilities.
Regardless of the outcome, the fact remains that millions of gallons of raw sewage has been released into the general area and should be considered during any cleanup and sanitation procedure.