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Locals upset over Valdosta spills

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Concerned citizens in the Tri-County Area are asking for a boycott of Valdosta, Ga., following a recent sewage spill that is just one of many since 2009.
"They should have fixed it the first time, and if not the first time, then the second time," said Levy County resident Natasha Allen Monday in a phone interview. "I want them to feel it in their pocket book," she said, adding that she hopes people traveling through Valdosta will avoid stopping there for gas or food.
About a year ago, Allen started a Facebook group called Friends of the Suwannee River, which now has 625 members and acts as a way for people to stay informed about issues involving the Suwannee — especially the ongoing sewage spills from Valdosta into the Withlacoochee River, which winds down into the Suwannee. The group is asking that people boycott the city until the problem is fixed.
Valdosta Mayor John Gayle said Tuesday he's not happy about any talks of a boycott.
"We certainly don't want that to happen," he said. "We appreciate the fact that we're a hub, and we benefit from that."
Valdosta has struggled to fix the most recent problems, which started in a "presidentially declared (flood) disaster" in 2009, Gayle said.
The plant can only process about 12 million gallons of water a day, and in heavy rains that sheet flow from development upstream the facility becomes overburdened and frequently releases excess water into the Withlacoochee.
"We're at the bottom of the bowl," Gayle said.
There are issues with aged pipes leading to the plant, as well, and a conservative estimate of tainted water since this time last year totals about 46 million gallons.
Gayle said the federal government denied Valdosta grant money to fix the problems, even though it declared the area a disaster zone.
"We were turned down three times. It's kind of one of those things where we didn't vote right," Gayle said, referring to the political demographic of the area.
Still, officials were able to get a 1 cent tax approved to help pay for a more than $50 million project to replace pipes and relocate the plant to higher ground, all of which should be completed by 2016, he said — a year earlier than the consent order issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Gayle said the city has also spent about $200 million since 1984 to upgrade and improve the facility.
"We're doing everything we can, but we're being punished by some of the flooding," he said, adding that some of the water the plant receives during flooding comes from as far north as Cordele, Ga.
Gayle said the city is also scheduling workshops with other concerned people, such as the ones who live in Madison County.
The Withlacoochee runs through Madison, and the Chamber of Commerce there sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott after the most recent incident in Valdosta — one that saw more than 1 million gallons of sewage escape — asking for something to be done on the part of the state.
"This ongoing situation has had, and will continue to have devastating economic impact on our local economy and tourism. It is unknown the total economic impact, however, our tourism revenues do not meet the recent reported tourism trends by Visit Florida," the letter stated. "The Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers are vital to our environment and the eco-tourism assets we have here and we believe that this situation will have a long lasting negative economic impact on our community."
Madison County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism President Roy Ellis said Monday he's heard no response from state officials on the matter.
"We don't know what to tell people," Ellis said about phone calls the Chamber gets from tourists wanting to know if the river is safe.
"Every time we turn around there's a spill up there."
Fanning Springs Mayor Cheryl Nekola said she's concerned about the spills and would "definitely support anything that stops it."
But, she added, she's never sure how much the spills are affecting areas on the Suwannee, such as Fanning Springs.
According to Georgia and Florida agencies, testing has, thus far, always shown that contamination of fecal coliform from the spills down river is minimal.
But that's something people such as Allen aren't willing to trust.
One of the issues prompting her to start the Friends of the Suwannee River Facebook group was that she kept getting inconsistent information from state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health.
"I realized that no one had the same answers," she said. "None of them knew what the results were."
Allen said she's also worried about how many more times this will happen until 2016, when the plant is scheduled to finish up with projects aimed at fixing the problem.
"A fix in two years is not a comfort," she said. The situation should be treated like an emergency, she said. It affects tourism, health and property values.
"I just think it's too long — too little, too late."
And even when the problems are "fixed," she said she's not confident that the problems won't continue.
"I feel like if this were happening in Clearwater or Tampa or St. Pete ... somebody would have, by now, said 'This is not OK. I grew up spending my summers on that river. And now I live on that river, and I think it's one of the best things the state has to offer."