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I-TEAM: Why did JEA lift stations leak sewage during storm?

70 sewage spills dumped raw waste into river, on ground, JEA says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After Gov. Rick Scott directed the state's Department of Environmental Protection to investigate sewer overflows around the state from Hurricane Matthew, the I-TEAM is digging into why 7.5 million gallons of raw sewage leaked into the St. Johns River in Jacksonville.

Even more raw sewage flowed into creeks and tributaries, and the utility encountered problems notifying the public of the spills.

Some people still haven't been informed about the raw sewage in their neighborhood, the I-TEAM learned at a Waterway Commission meeting Wednesday at City Hall.

JEA had about 30 sewage warning signs made up before Hurricane Matthew hit, but more than 70 lift stations failed around the area.

The utility was printing up more signs Tuesday night and into Wednesday and is still trying to notify every affected area.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman told commissioners on Wednesday that the massive sewage leak could and should have been prevented.

JEA reported more than 70 of its lift stations lost power. The majority of those lift stations aren't equipped with backup generators, so when they lose power, raw sewage spews into rivers and on the ground.

Here's what the I-TEAM found out about JEA capabilities during a hurricane:

  • JEA reports it has roughly 1,400 lift stations, which pump wastewater or sewage from a lower to higher elevation.
  • Only 280 of those lift stations have backup generators
  • JEA also has 100 additional mobile generators, but they can't be deployed during a storm event for safety reasons.

Rinaman said JEA should have had an emergency plan in place, which was designed by a firm years ago.

“Part of this plan made a recommendation to have backup power, dual power sources, isolation plans in place, emergency pump-around plans,” Rinaman said. “Unfortunately, these things have not been implemented.”

During a press conference on Wednesday, JEA CEO Paul McElroy said the utility is evaluating what went wrong and how it will improve.

A JEA news release said the utility applauds the governor’s efforts to investigate the sanitary sewer overflows.

Sanitary Sewer Overflows are when sewage comes out of manholes or pump stations rather than making it all the way to the wastewater treatment plant.  When this occurs, JEA responds to the site to assess the situation, works to correct the cause and clean up the impacted area, and monitors any impacted waterway until it returns to normal conditions.

JEA has 1,380 pump stations in its 4,000-mile collection system. As of Tuesday evening, all pump stations adversely affected by Hurricane Matthew had been restored to service.

Centralized water systems, such as JEA’s drinking water system, are totally separate from the wastewater (sewer) system. JEA drinking water is constantly monitored to ensure it meets safe drinking water standards.

“Like the Governor, JEA is committed to ensuring that healthy, clean water is a top priority for our families,” McElroy said. “We always work closely with the Department of Environmental Protection and will continue to comply with all new and existing regulations such as EPA’s Capacity Maintenance Operation and Management best practices program.  As related to SSOs, our goal is zero.”

Last month, Scott directed DEP Secretary Jon Steverson to issue an emergency rule that establishes new requirements for public notification of pollution incidents. The emergency rule is meant to ensure the public, local governments and DEP are notified within 24 hours by all responsible parties following a pollution incident

Jacksonville Mayor Curry released the following statement Wednesday in response to the DEP investigation:

“I applaud Governor Scott’s call for a statewide investigation by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection into hurricane-related sewage discharges like those occurring  in Jacksonville, as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Determining the causes of sewage spills will help wastewater utilities devise ways to prevent these dangerous overflows in the future. As mayor, public safety is my number one priority. To ensure the health and safety of our residents, it is critical that we understand the causes of these sewer breaches and take appropriate steps to prevent them. The governor’s response to the sewer overflow problem in Jacksonville and other Florida communities will help us do both.”  

JEA: 7M gallons of sewage spilled during Matthew

More than 6 millions gallons of sewage was spilled into waterways as a result of Hurricane Matthew, according to JEA. 

JEA officials said they are on top of the situation and that the raw sewage doesn't pose a big risk, except in the immediate areas where it happened. 

Due to safety concerns, no one should swim or fish near contaminated sites, according to JEA.

About  2 p.m. Friday, there was an electrical fault at a master wastewater lift station on 118th Street on Jacksonville's Westside. 

As a result of the fault, the pumps at the station went offline during the peak of the storm and at least 5 million gallons of sewage overflowed into the Ortega River, JEA said. 

About 3:30 p.m. Friday, power went out at the Cedar Bay wastewater plant in northeast Jacksonville as "part of impacts from Hurricane Matthew," JEA said. 

Due to the outage, JEA said, the plant has not been able to fully treat the sewage and partially treated sewage has been flowing into the St. Johns River, just south of the branch of the Broward River. On average, 5 million gallons flows from the plant daily.

About 2:20 a.m. Saturday, JEA said, there was an outage reported at a wastewater lift station on Holiday Road South as a result of Hurricane Matthew, which allowed about 1.1 million gallons of sewage to overflow into the Pottsburg Creek.

JEA said that testing conducted Tuesday showed no problems at the site. But people living in the area said they're still concerned.

About the Authors:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.