Orlando sewage treatment plant dumped 7 million gallons

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Sewage dumped in St. Johns Maria M. Perotin of the Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on April 06, 2000

A Sanford sewage treatment plant dumped 7 million gallons of partially treated sewage into the St. Johns River last weekend without alerting health officials.

Now, health officials in Seminole and Volusia counties are warning people to avoid contact with the river water until they figure out whether the water is still contaminated. But they acknowledge that after a busy weekend of swimming and skiing, the precautions may be too late.

That's because the foul water -- about enough to fill all the pools at SeaWorld Orlando's Shamu Stadium -- already could have flowed many miles from Lake Monroe and probably has been diluted.

For 21 hours Saturday and Sunday, workers at the sewage treatment plant dealt with an equipment malfunction by emptying two giant retention ponds until 7 million gallons of wastewater had flowed into the river on the westernmost side of Lake Monroe.

The workers didn't notify state environmental regulators about the problems except to leave a message on the state Department of Environmental Protection's answering machine Saturday.

The workers didn't call area health departments.

Swimmers and anyone who touched the river water faced the greatest risk during the weekend, said John Bowles, an environmental specialist with the state agency.

"They should have called the health department when it happened," Bowles said. "Around that outfall that day, you probably would've wanted to avoid it. I certainly would have."

Paul Moore, director of Sanford utilities, said the plant had a serious problem but defended releasing the partially treated sewage into the river.

Moore said Wednesday that the water released into the St. Johns met quality standards set out in the city's permit from the environmental agency.

"Everybody has to realize that all wastewater has to have a home someplace, whether it's the river or elsewhere," Moore said.

"I think what we discharged in the river is just a drop in the bucket in terms of what flows through the river," Moore said.

The sewage dump has outraged a neighborhood several miles downriver in DeBary, where more than a dozen families pull their household water from the St. Johns.

River Drive resident Kathy Abelove said she learned of the health department's warning late Tuesday when she received a hand-delivered warning.

Abelove said she drinks bottled water but bathes in water from the river.

"All the people on my street are pretty much in an uproar," Abelove said. "I'm freaked out that no one's said anything."

Jane Smith, the wife of former DeBary Mayor Don Smith, said her family uses a filtration system to treat river water for drinking and cooking in their River Drive home.

But health officials -- who didn't realize until this week that any homes use water from the St. Johns -- said that's not enough to ensure its purity.

Smith said the treatment plant should be reprimanded for failing to notify anyone during the busy weekend.

"On Sunday, the St. Johns River looked like I-4," she said. "There were people swimming in the river. There's skiing and fishing."

The DEP's Bowles said some kind of punishment is likely, although plant officials have until the end of the week to submit a report explaining what happened.

"We do plan at this time to take some sort of enforcement action about this discharge," he said. "It had a real high potential for environmental and human hazard."

Moore, the Sanford utilities official, said the discharge was the culmination of a series of problems that began last Thursday.

The crisis peaked Saturday when partially treated but unfiltered sewage spilled from a tank and clogged filters at the plant.

The sewage then flowed to two large retention ponds, which are designed to hold more than a day's worth of treated water. They were partially filled because of an earlier problem, Moore said. By 2 p.m. Saturday, the ponds had reached their capacity, and the plant had to release millions of gallons of partially treated water into the river.

The water had to be pumped from the city's treatment plant near the Central Florida Regional Hospital to the discharge point several miles to the west.

The water that ultimately ended up in the river was cleaner than raw sewage, having gone through a first phase of cleansing. But it hadn't been disinfected of potentially dangerous bacteria and wasn't as clean as the so-called "reclaimed water" that the city uses to irrigate lawns.

The plant released 4.7 million gallons into the river Saturday and an additional 4.4 million gallons Sunday. That total included 7 million gallons of the partially treated wastewater and about 2 million gallons of reclaimed water that was mixed in to dilute the sewage.

Moore said that discharging reclaimed water into the river can be a daily occurrence during the rainy season when people don't need much water for their lawns.

Still, he acknowledged the plant had big trouble during the weekend.

"I can't remember having a problem like this," he said. "We have had problems in the past, and sometimes we don't meet standards."

The state environmental agency fined the Sanford plant $3,400 in October 1998 for a wastewater discharge similar to this weekend's. That time, workers dumped water into the river three times during a two-week period, but didn't tell the agency for another week, Bowles said.

The head of the Seminole County Health Department's environmental health section said water samples were taken Monday at the spot where the sewage was discharged and 500 yards upstream and downstream. The discharge point is near Wayside Park off of U.S. Highway 17-92 on the Seminole-Volusia border, just west of the Interstate 4 bridge and directly across from Volusia County's Lake Monroe Park.

Preliminary results of Monday's tests showed water quality is within safe standards but John Cochran said he would wait until the test results are confirmed. Those results are expected by this evening.

"I've never dealt with anything like this in my tenure as director," said Cochran, who has been in the job 10 years. "People need to heed the warnings until we can confirm we're okay."

Chuck Luther, an environmental manager at Volusia's health department, said the warning to avoid contact with the water is the first he has seen since joining the department in 1981.

On Wednesday, some people still hadn't gotten word of the warnings.

Willie G. Holt, a retired Seminole County educator, was spending the afternoon fishing at Lake Monroe Park in Volusia County when he heard of the incident.

Said Holt, who typically cooks the crappies and bass he catches there, "I'm not going to fish out here for a while."

Across the county line at Seminole's Wayside Park, hot pink signs were posted near the boat ramp and the fishing piers.

The signs read: "Caution, due to sewage discharge these waters may be contaminated and direct contact with these waters should be avoided until these signs are removed."

The signs went unheeded by some boaters and personal watercraft riders out for a day on the water.

Aubre Kent drove to the shores of Lake Monroe from Orlando and was putting his water scooter into the river when he spotted the signs.

"It's not going to stop me because I probably won't get into the water," he said, "but it's a shame."

Robert Perez and Amy C. Rippel contributed to this report.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), April 06, 2000

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