Valdosta: Andrea not a concern for more sewage spills

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Plant to be moved by August 2015

By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Officials in Georgia say it's not likely rain from Tropical Storm Andrea will cause another sewage spill such as the one seen at the end of February.
"The river levels are pretty low right now," Sementha Mathews, spokesperson for the City of Valdosta, said Thursday afternoon."We don't expect too much rain, maybe 3 to 5 inches."
Valdosta runs two wastewater plants, though the biggest is the Withlacoochee River Water Pollution Control Plant, which in February was flooded by massive amounts of water from the nearby Withlacoochee River.
Officials there decided to shut operations down to help spare facility equipment, though in doing so allowed 15 to 20 million gallons of untreated sludge to make its way into the river. The Florida Department of Health issued health warnings advising people to steer clear of water in both the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. Later testing for coliform bacteria by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found contamination to be below state standards.
Mathews said although they don't expect this most recent storm to be an issue, city workers are taking precautions.
A city mill pond has been drained, she said, which will allow potential flood waters to be stored before they can make their way to the facility, and workers Wednesday started reducing the amounts of solids processed by the facility.
The plant, on average, processes about 8 million gallons per day of wastewater, though it has the capability of handling up to 12 million gallons.
Mitch Parker, a treatment plant operator at the facility, said, because of the approaching storm, some of the waste solids from the city are now being processed on a belt press, which mixes the waste with polymers and makes it into cakes sent to a landfill.
Mathews said city workers are also being vigilant about making sure drainage ditches are clear of debris.
Still, some locals here are concerned.
"I'm hoping we don't have an issue from this, but, no, I will not feel good about it until it's over," said area resident Natasha Allen. "I feel like you almost have to make a phone call to go into the river."
Allen organized a Facebook page — now with about 300 friends — called Friends of the Suwannee River soon after hearing about a second spill in April that, once again, caused FDOH to issue health warnings. The spill was smaller than that of February's accident, and it emanated from a broken pipe in Lowndes County, Ga., but it made Allen, whose home is on the Suwannee River, begin to question what was going on. "We're on the river every weekend," she said.
Ill at ease, Allen began calling local and state agencies to get more information about how the accident happened and about where water quality testing was being done.
"I called all kinds of departments, and I never got the same answer twice, " Allen said.
The Facebook page was meant to help keep people informed and to get them involved. "I know when groups of people get involved ... things happen."
But things are happening, according to Mathews, though they may take some time.
"We are aggressively working toward it," she said.
The City of Valdosta has six projects, approved last month, aimed at fixing the problem. In the next 6 to 8 months, the wastewater facility, which provides services to about 3/4 of Valdosta residents, will have a new 6-million-gallon "equalization basin" to help with large volumes of water and a new force main that uses lift pumps.
The current system relies on gravity to bring untreated sewage to the plant, which is an issue, considering that the plant is located at a low elevation.
Mathews said the plant itself is scheduled to be relocated to a spot about 1/2 mile farther up river on higher ground by Aug. 2015.
"We want to be good neighbors upstream."