Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Valdosta's 7.5 Million Gallon Raw Sewage Spill:  For 7 days, like an unseen oil spill

VALDOSTA, GA – For the second time in one day the 7.5 mil gallon Valdosta sewage spill was addressed by North Florida's River Taskforce, this time in Valdosta with the Valdosta City Council. Many folks from Florida made the trip.

Before the meeting got underway, your reporter followed up on the reports from the Madison, FL, meeting that Valdosta officials were invited to attend the meeting but did not.

Valdosta's Director of Utilities Darryl Muse and City Manager Mark Barber both said they weren't invited and knew nothing about it.

Valdosta Utility Director Darryl Muse explains the circumstances surround the spill.

Why did 7.5 mil gal of sewage spill on the ground?
Utility Director Darryl Muse Explains

"I'm glad everyone could show up... If there is some point during the meeting that there are pressing questions, please raise your hand and we'll get to you... As you know, we had a 7.5 million gallon sewer release at one of our lift stations... The result of that non functioning station was that [raw sewage] was released into the creek that ultimately flows to the Withlacoochee."

"The [lift] station failed to operate because there was a terminal disconnection and during the course of some equipment repair, one of the technicians that was working on the system neglected to put that wire - that cable - back on the controller. That controller monitors the amount of waste coming into the wet-well of the [lift] station. As far as the [lift] station knew, there was nothing in the wet well; no reason to send an alarm out... It also sent a control signal to the PLC, which tells the pumps to start and to run and of course pump that flow out to the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment facility."

"One might ask why we didn't have a secondary controller there. Well we did."

Mr. Muse explained that the secondary controller causes a beacon to blink at the lift station. "We had hoped that someone would see a beacon light flashing and they would call our number and let us know that we had an issue. That didn't happen."

"The treatment plant operator at the Withlacoochee treatment plant called in, noticing that flow was decreasing coming into the plant. As a result of that our guys went out; tried to find out where the flow was going and discovered that that station had been disabled and was not able to communicate that call in to us in the city. Within a couple of hours the problem was repaired."

"The moment that we got the system back up and operational, we started to identify where it flows to... and we started to remediate."

"Remediation for us is making sure the areas are safe for humans."

Lift Station explanation-how it works
Original image of lift station above.

Mr. Muse explained they spread chemicals and began vacuuming the flow from the creek and put up signs for about 20 miles along the creek.

Problematic: Spill Time / Notification Time

Hamilton County, FL, Commissioner Beth Burnham asked, "How much time elapsed between the time the contractor failed to reconnect what he should have and you actually found where it was spilling?"

Director Muse answered, "We are estimating 3 1/2 - 4 days."

An unidentified member of the audience asked, "How much time elapsed between when you found out and when you notified the counties downstream?

City Manager Mark Barber answered, "I got the message from Darryl at 4:30; by 5:30 that listing [email list] that we agreed on -- I notified everybody."

Mr. Barber's email went out on December 9, at 5:30 pm. Sewage began spilling on or about December 3, seven days earlier.

Who Was Contacted?

The contact list used by Valdosta to apprise Florida folks of the spill was provided to Valdosta by the North Central Florida Regional Planning Council's Executive Director Scott Koons.

Scott Koons, Executive Director North Central Florida Regional Planning Council
Scott Koons listening to Darryl Muse

On June 27, 2019, Mr. Koons announced during a River Task Force meeting that he had transmitted the Planning Council's list to Valdosta. Neither media, nor citizens were included.

Many folks in Florida, including the Observer, thought they were on the list or were added and received nothing from Valdosta about the spill.

Mr. Barber, in response to a question from the audience, said he would be happy to add to the list. Mr. Barber's email is MBarber@valdostacity.com.

River Task Force Chairman Rick Davis Weighs In

Rick Davis, Madison County, County Commissioner
River Task Force Chairman Rick Davis

Madison County Commissioner and River Taskforce Chairman Rick Davis explained what happened in Madison earlier in the day. He said, "It's unfortunate that we're here tonight to talk about a lack of oversight and quality control on Valdosta's part."

Commissioner Davis continued, "I'd like to know tonight what the City of Valdosta is doing from this point forward to have oversight in your system; your employees; oversight of who is doing the work for you?"

Valdosta City Manager Barber responded with his take on what happened:

"It was a minor adjustment to the lift station. It was not a huge project where we needed a construction manager watching... We did not know they were out there until after all this happened... We have SOP's [standard operating procedures] that we follow, but like I said, 'We were not aware that this third party contractor was making that adjustment.'"

"It's our responsibility 100%. We don't take it lightly... We are equally as frustrated with this."

He continued:

"We began an internal investigation: our employees and our SOP's to see what happened. We couldn't have prevented it, but we could have found it sooner. We had two employees that did not follow specifically what they should have done and that's why it lasted as long as it did. The employees are no longer with us... It was a series of errors... We don't want it to happen as much as you guys don't want it to happen."

Denise Shirey
Denise Shirey in Valdosta.

Denise Shirey, who also attended the Madison meeting earlier in the day, said she would like to see the corrective action report and took issue that it was only a human error.

Mr. Barber reiterated that the proper protocol was in place. "We had two employees that did not follow the protocol as they should have. It wouldn't have prevented it by any means, but they could have found it on Wednesday morning or mid morning."

That would have been on December 4. The notification of the spill went out on December 9.

Ms. Shirey followed up, "We are talking about prevention. We are not talking about something a day after it happened."

Utility Director Muse Comments

Utility Director Muse agreed. He said, "Ironically, what was being installed at the site was the supervisory control and data acquisition, which is that very process that you are talking about that would give you advanced notice of any event at the lift station."

"What's being put in place? An advanced SCADA system is being put in place at that lift station and every other lift station in the City."

Mark Barber, Valdosta City Manager
City Manager Barber listens to the conversation.

Mr. Muse said the new system would alert the City that someone opened the gate and entered the site. "The new system would also send out an alarm when the power was disconnected. Then the station would have gone into default mode - the pumps would have begun running."

"The moment that guy opened the door, we would have gotten an alarm."

One person said he was buying bottled water and brushing his teeth with it, but his animals had to drink it.

Another person said the City was putting signs where everyone couldn't see them.

Commissioner Davis voiced concern that the released effluent is being held in/on the ground and that during rain events more will be released into the river and affect the water quality in Hamilton and Madison counties in Florida.

Commissioner Burnham said people can't afford to flush and repair their well systems.

What About Fines?

An unidentified person from the audience asked if the City of Valdosta had ever been fined. The answer was no.

City Manager Barber explained that EPD [Georgia's Environmental Protection Department] in lieu of fines adds more projects to "keep the problem from happening... They will add more projects to the consent order."

Suwannee Riverkeeper

John Quarterman of WWals Watershed Coalition may be the world's biggest expert on the Suwannee River in the vicinity of Valdosta, the Withlacoochee River, the creeks and tributaries, and the Suwannee in North Florida.

John Quarterman
John Quarterman addresses the River Taskforce in May 2019.

He addressed the City Manager Barber saying "Valdosta flushed 7.5 million gallons of sewage down the Withlacoochee River." He claimed that Valdosta's water readings are not done in a way that informs Florida residents that sewage is approaching the Florida border from Georgia. He thought they could, but claimed they don't.

Mr. Quarterman said, "Valdosta takes no responsibility for alerting people down river in Florida that sewage is approaching."

There was no response to Mr. Quarterman's statement and the Mayor changed the subject to kayak trips on the river.

An unidentified person asked, "Who is directly responsible for this massive sewage release?"

Mark Barber, City Manager Voldosta
City Manager Barber announcing full responsibility.

Mr. Barber replied, "As I said at the beginning, we take full responsibility... The City of Valdosta takes full responsibility. Now, that doesn't mean that we're going to take full financial responsibility, because the contractor still has some liability and responsibilities with this."

Unidentified person from the audience: "Who do we give the bill to?"

Mr. Barber answered, "We have been in talks with EMC to see what we can come up with, with them, to handle some of these questions."

EMC is Electric Machine Control located in Trussville, Alabama. Learn more about EMC here.

Mr. Barber explained that the president of EMC "is willing to do a lot of things and I imagine they would be willing to foot some these bills."

Mr. Barber continued, "Their insurance is notified. They've already taken care of all of that, so we'll actually decide how we want to approach this with them. It's ready to go."

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