More spills in Valdosta

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Pray it doesn't rain in Valdosta, Ga.

The city has received more than 5 inches of rain since the beginning of the month, and that's just too much for a wastewater treatment plant there to handle.

"As a result of localized flooding on many roads, inflow and infiltration of storm water overwhelmed the sanitary sewer collection system ...." according to a City of Valdosta report.

City of Valdosta spokeswoman Sementha Mathews was unavailable for comment as of press time, but, according to the report, as of Saturday the plant had spilled about 800,000 gallons of treated and untreated water from 13 different areas into the Withlacoochee River and nearby tributaries that, ultimately, feed into the Suwannee River and into the Gulf of Mexico.

Four of the spills, totaling 295,750 gallons, had been stopped by Friday and over the weekend, but 11 others, last reported to have leaked 504,000 gallons, had not been fixed, according to the report on Monday.

On Tuesday, a new report had been posted claiming that most of the spills had been stopped, though there were new higher totals, and three of the spills continued to rage on, pumping a combined amount of 1,795,000 gallons of waste up to that point.

According to the Florida Department of Health on Friday, test results in two locations from various spills upstream in the Withlacoochee River have shown higher-than-normal levels of fecal coliform. The agency is, once again, urging caution against contact with water from the Suwannee River because of the spill.

" The bad news for the folks up near the spill is that during the flood, many of the solids will end up being deposited in the floodplain--where people live," Save our Suwannee President Annette Long said Monday. "This happened in the Santa Fe River watershed where Porta Potty pumpers were using floodplain to distribute their solids. After a flood, those solids ended up coating the inside of people's flooded homes. Seriously, this is a real health threat to the folks who live on low land nearer to the spills."

Water contaminated by wastewater presents several health hazards to humans and may contain microbes that could cause gastro-intestinal and other diseases, according to FDOH. People coming into contact with the water should wash thoroughly. Children, older adults and those with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable.

"Theoretically, the solution to pollution is dilution," Long said, adding that she wasn't sure why there wasn't a real-time monitor on the Suwannee or Withlacoochee rivers. "Without the background data, there is no way to say what harm might be happening from the Valdosta spills."

Valdosta is causing the Suwannee River to take on even more nitrates in an already overburdened ecosystem, Long said.

"This continuous spilling is terrible for the public health in Valdosta and the folks who live directly downstream. It leaves a legacy of truckloads of extra nutrients that affect the Suwannee from where the Withlacoochee enters it at Ellaville to the Gulf of Mexico. The EPA needs to crack down on these spills every time it rains."

This is the fourth such incident this year, though the problem, which has in total caused a conservative estimate of about 50 millions of gallons of treated and untreated sewage to be discharged since this time last year, has been ongoing since 2009.

And then there's what has potentially gone unreported by Valdosta. An article written by the Valdosta Daily Times earlier this month, claims that reporters there discovered a sewer main leaking sewage that the city was unaware of. There are photos on the newspaper's website that show effluent leaking from the main, which shows signs of being patched several times with concrete. The Valdosta Times reports that the city was unable to say how much wastewater had leaked.

The Valdosta plant, according to officials there, is outdated and ill equipped to handle large volumes of water at one time. Heavy rain in the area frequently results in the release of water that contains sewage, either from the plant itself or crumbling sewer pipes. Officials there say they plan to relocate the plant to higher ground in 2016.

Long said the amount of rain that's now falling used to be a regular occurrence, so she has a hard time understanding how Valdosta keeps getting caught off guard.

"Why weren't they ready for the rain? The Suwannee doesn't need more brown trout."