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Environmental meltdown during Hurricane Matthew power outages

I-TEAM tests water after human waste released into local rivers, streets

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the hours and days Jacksonville was without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, a filthy, invisible enemy was left behind that is still threatening the health of Jacksonville residents.

11 million gallons of raw sewage released

Eleven million gallons of raw sewage -- human waste -- was accidentally released into our rivers and on our streets after the storm knocked out power to 67 lift stations, which is 5 percent, according to JEA. At the bottom of this article, you'll find an interactive map of all the locations where lift stations failed during Hurricane Matthew.

The human waste that accidentally poured into our waterways and into Jacksonville communities can not only emit an awful stench, the E.coli can make you extremely sick -- and can cause anemia and kidney failure.

The I-TEAM worked with a local lab, Advanced Environmental Laboratories, to test the E.coli levels last Thursday, in communities where large amounts of that raw sewage was spilled. We compared our results with those taken by JEA immediately after the Hurricane. The good news is that the raw sewage levels are decreasing, but fecal coliform is still very present in many of our waterways.

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

I-TEAM examines 3 raw sewage spill locations

To examine the potential environmental impact due to the accidental release of raw sewage, the I-TEAM took a closer look into what happened at three JEA lift stations when the power was knocked out by Hurricane Matthew. The three stations discharged large amounts of human waste into those communities.

On the Westside of Jacksonville, on Alachua Road near Ed White High School, JEA says 848,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled in Wills Branch Creek. JEA's allowable level of fecal coliform in streams equates to a score of 800. But, the utility's tests reveal the stream scored 5,300 for the presence of E.coli three days after the storm.

Also on the Westside, in a creek near 118th Street, JEA reported 196,000 gallons of sewage spilled in the nearby neighborhood. JEA scored the fecal bacterial levels at 4,900 --again well above the allowable score of 800.

At a lift station on the Southside, off Bradley Drive, 288,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled. When JEA tested on October 11, Jones Creek scored 2,300.

"If the water is not moving, quiescent, then it obviously takes longer for an event to clear up. In an extreme storm condition like we just had, they clean up rather rapidly," explained JEA spokesman Paul Steinbrecher.

Steinbrecher says the human waste naturally dilutes over time in our waterways depending on the climate, the rainfall and the rate of flowing water.

"What's your message to the public after millions of gallons of raw sewage escaped?" the I-TEAM asked Steinbrecher.

"That we're going to focus on those pump stations and get better," he responded.

JEA says 66 of the 67 sites that lost power and spilled sewage have returned to pre-storm conditions, meaning the warnings have been lifted. But keep in mind, in almost every body of water in Jacksonville, there are allowable amounts of fecal coliform, and the chances that the bacteria is there is pretty high.

JEA officials admit that changes need to be made to the design of their pump stations, so if a Hurricane hits again, the stations can continue to move the city's sewage. The utility could get more backup generators at the sites to avoid a similar problem in the future. We're told if that decision is made, JEA customers may see their bills go up in order to pay for those generators.

I-TEAM conducts independent water tests

So how long does the environmental impact of a raw sewage spill last? The I-TEAM teamed up with Advanced Environmental Laboratories and returned to the same three sites five days after JEA conducted its testing, to test the polluted waters once again.

"Right now we're testing for fecal E.coli bacteria strain," said Advanced Environmental Laboratories technician David Hindman. "It definitely is an invisible enemy. You won't notice it through sight, sound or smell."

The I-TEAM's independent test results reveal the presence of fecal bacteria had dropped dramatically at all three sites. But, further downstream from Wills Creek - the pollution persists. JEA reports fecal bacteria levels at 4,800. Even though the impact site was clear, the sewage itself may have moved.

The owner of Advanced Environmental Labs, Chuck Jedd, says there are a number of factors that come into play.

"With the large volume of discharge that occurred after the storm, it could have diluted out into smaller pockets, or it could have been released straight out to other tributaries or the river where it's ending up," Jedd explained.

I-TEAM uses at-home test kit to check accuracy 

The I-TEAM also conducted tests with a test kit purchased at Home Depot for $28.98. It's the H2O OK Plus: Complete Water Analysis Kit. It includes 23 drinking water quality tests, so you can check for lead, pesticides and more -- but also shows the presence of fecal coliform. 

As the I-TEAM found It's a relatively simple test to use. Simply follow the directions inside the package and wear latex gloves for your own protection.

For the I-TEAM's test, we sampled Fishing Creek off Nancy Drive on the Westside. After letting the vial incubate for 48 hours as instructed, the yellow coloring with bubbles identified the presence of fecal coliform. Remember, JEA says there are allowable amounts of fecal coliform in our waterways. This test will not tell you how much is in there, just that it is present.

However, if you are using this at-home test on your drinking water in your home, and you get positive results for fecal coliform, you can contact JEA at (904) 665-6000 or (800) 683-5542.

To learn more about JEA's drinking water, go here. You can see JEA's 2015 water quality report here.


About the Authors:

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