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Second sewage spill prompts warnings for Suwannee

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

For the second time in as many months, state health officials are cautioning against contact with water from the Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers.
Anyone who comes into contact with the water, until officials can determine what, if any, contamination is still present from a recent sewage spill in Georgia, should wash thoroughly, the Florida Department of Health warns.
Workers form the City of Valdosta, Ga., discovered a broken sewage pipe owned by the county leaking effluent into the Withlacoochee Wednesday. After being notified, Lowndes County workers stopped the flow early Tuesday morning, according to county spokesperson Paige Dukes, but not before an estimated 1.3 million gallons of sewage during a 40-hour period made its way downstream.
“None of our levels had decreased or hit indicator levels that would have alerted us that there was something going on,” Dukes said in a phone interview Friday. The City of Valdosta workers just happened to notice the broken sewer main, which succumbed to old age, during a routine check of the area.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has already begun sampling water, according to FDOH spokesperson Ashley Carr Friday. Carr didn’t know where the sampling was taking place, but she said results should be known sometime next week. FDEP did not reply to information requests by Friday.
“I think the risk is minimal (for Levy County), given that we’re on the far end of the river,” Levy County Health Department Director Barbara Locke said Friday. “But we always have to be cautious.”
Untreated wastewater presents several health hazards to people from microbes such as e-coli bacteria. Children, the elderly and people with depressed immune systems are especially vulnerable, according to FDOH.
At the end of February, a bigger sewage spill, somewhere between 15 to 20 million gallons, also made its way into the Withlacoochee when a Valdosta wastewater treatment facility shut itself down after being flooded with high river levels. FDOH put out a warning then, as well, though later tests by FDEP found contamination levels to be below what’s considered unsafe.
Marzieh Sahbazaz, a representative from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said Friday in a phone interview that GEPD is in the process or drafting a consent order requiring the City of Valdosta to show how it plans to prevent such spills from happening in the future.
“There will be a lot of requirements,” she said, adding that the order should be made public in about a month. The City of Valdosta, while reevaluating their waste collection systems, is also working on relocating the facility to an area not in flood zone, she said. “And that’s good news.”
As far as Wednesday’s spill, Sahbazaz said GEDP is still evaluating the information that was sent from Lowndes County. Although not as big as the spill that took place in February, Sahbazaz said, typically, any spill larger than 100,000 gallons warrants an investigation.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “The amount is huge.”