Update 2019-01-28: Fourth wave: bad water quality at State Line and Knights Ferry 2020-01-26
Update 2020-01-24: Emma Wheeler, WCTV, January 24, 2020, Wells test positive for e-coli in Madison County,
If you weren’t at the Madison County meeting about Valdosta sewage, 1PM, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, you can see the whole thing in these videos I took for WWALS.
If you want a shorter version, try Stew Lilker, Columbia County Observer, January 11, 2020, 7.5 Mil Gal of Raw Sewage Headed Into N. FL From Valdosta – FL Sen. Bill Montford Wants Answers. See Stew ask his very perceptive question, Does contamination spread underground?.
Another reporter visible in these videos, although he did not speak, Nathan Dean, WTXL, January 8, 2020, Community pushes for solutions after massive sewage spill in Withlacoochee River.
Below are links to each WWALS video of the Madison meeting, with notes, followed by a WWALS video playlist. The notes are not exhaustive; just some high spots. You can watch the whole thing and form your own opinions.
Adding more chairs
Video. Public demand was higher than the organizers expected.
Video. There were people standing in the back the whole time.
Sen. Montford, Rep. Brannan, Rep. Shoaf, EPA
Video. Florida Senator Bill Montford welcomed everyone.
FDEP, EPA, Task Force, FDOH, staff: Sen. Rubio, Rep. Lawson
Video. Rick Davis, Madison County Commissioner and Chair of the Florida Counties Middle and Lower Suwannee River and Withlacoochee River Task Force, said a few words, and asked people to introduce themselves clockwise around the table.
- Gregory DeAngelo, Deputy Director, Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). He said his division coordinates personnel who go out into the field to do water quality sampling.
- Alexandria Bickley, External Affairs Director, FDEP.
- John Truitt, Deputy Secretary Regulatory Programs, FDEP. “We engage with EPA and several of the federal at the state level here in Florida.”
- Blake Ashbee, Chief of Staff, Region 4, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “We represent the eight southeastern states including Florida and Georgia. He said EPA Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker thanked them for the invitation.
- Carol Kemker, Director, Enforcement and Compliance Assurance Division, EPA Region 4.
- Brian Myers(?), Public Affairs Section, EPA Region 4.
- John (?), Regional Director, Senator Marco Rubio.
- Theresa Frederick, District Director, Congressman Al Lawson.
- Thomas Demps, Taylor County, Task Force
- Brian Kauffman, Madison County Manager, Task Force
- Scott Koons, Executive Director, North Central Florida Regional Planning Council (NCFRPC), said he provides staff support for the Task Force.
- Beth Burnam, Hamilton County Commissioner, District 1, “right up on the Georgia line, so my district is the first one that the Withlacoochee flows into when it comes into Florida,” on the Task Force
- Dr. Robertson, Deputy Secretary for Health, Florida Department of Health (FDOH). The FDOH website still says To be announced for that position.
- Dr. Kendra Goff, State Toxicologist, FDOH. “I work back and forth with Greg’s group, coordinating the efforts.”
- Anthony Adams, Lafayette County, Task Force
- “Hi, I’m Ricky, from the [?] Office.”
Davis mentioned other elected officials were in the audience.
The entire Madison BOCC was there:
- Donnie Waldrep, Chair
- Alston Kelly
- Ronnie Moore
- Alfred Martin
“From the City of Madison we have Commissioner Jim Catron.”
Davis asked for other elected officials, and nobody responded, so apparently there were no others.
He reiterated how people who wanted to speak could sign up to do so.
Task Force letter with asks for state legislators and EPA
Video. Chair Davis read from a letter he had drafted for the Task Force to send to Sen. Montford, Rep. Shoaf, and Rep. Brannan.
It asks legislative bodies for:
- State oversight from FDEP
- Funding for FDEP oversight
- Possible litigation against the third party contractor
- Possible litigation against the state of Georgia or Valdosta
- Funding for tourism marketing recovery
- Reimbursement to counties for local emergency expenses related to water testing and potable drinking water provided to citizens
It asks EPA for:
- Federal oversight concerning enforcement of GA-EPD Consent Order against Valdosta. He remarked GA-EPD was not present.
- Issuing a moratorium on any new construction in the city of Valdosta that contributes to their sewage treatment facilities until they have provided evidence that their system is operating in accordance with federal and state standards, and the proper supervision and oversight of their system and any third party contracgtors
- Levy appropriate fines against the city of Valdosta for the record-setting raw sewage spill during the week of December 3rd, 2019, as a result of their lack of oversight and supervision of a third-party contractor
We want action now. –Sen. Montford
Video. Sen. Montford said “we’ll be here until everybody has a chance to be heard.” But first he wanted additional response from “our state colleagues” and EPA as to what has been done and what is to be done. He said we know what the problem is, it’s been going on for a long time, and people are frustrated. “We don’t need another study. We want action now, to clean up what’s there, and to prevent it.”
Task Force asks, FDEP passes the buck
Video. Chair Davis said,
How long will our state agencies allow another state or group or entity or government to poison our environment. The question would be from this day forward, from today, what measures can be taken by our state regulatory agencies to ensure that
- we put enough by what we’re doing we’re going to defend that to ever happen again, and
- what can we do to remedy what’s happening now?
FDEP’s John Truitt immediately passed the buck, saying “We don’t have jurisdiction over Valdosta.” Sen. Montford asked people to stand up to speak so people could hear. Truitt added that GA-EPD is going through an enforcement procedure with Valdosta. He said a state could make comments, as well as counties, and “as a recovering lawyer” he tended to watch such things closely.
FDEP water testing, EPA and GA-EPD Consent Order(s)
Video. FDEP’s Greg DeAngelo said FDEP was reactively sampling as they had in the past. In advance of that, “starting last April” FDEP has three trend sites monitored ongoing, GA 31 (State Line), Withlacoochee Confluence, and Alapaha River at US 41 near Jasper. He did say monthly, which is not frequent enough. He did not mention they don’t publish their results for four months. He verified that they are testing for sucralose and other chemicals (“tracer elements”) that pass through human bodies and wastewater treatment plants. He showed a map of combined sampling by FDEP, FDOH, SRWMD, and the City of Valdosta.
He didn’t mention WWALS or Lowndes County, GA, sampling, or that Valdosta had already gone from daily to weekly, and mostly only upstream and downstream on Sugar Creek, because that’s all GA-EPD requires them to do.
He said “that plug of seven and a half million gallons, we’re trying to find it.” He said in Monday’s sampling, FDEP had finally seen elevated levels at the state line on the Withlacoochee.
This would be the same datapoint I got from FDEP the previous evening (thanks, Julie Espy), and told Madison BOCC about earlier the same morning of this meeting.
Sen. Montford wanted to know what are we going to do about it? What is Georgia going to do? “Enough is enough.”
Truitt promised that “we work a lot with EPA Region 4” and said he would call EPA if Florida suggestions were not showing up in the Consent Order enforcement. He said it’s a public process, and citizens can make comments. He said spills in Georgia are not required to be reported; I had to correct that later.
Truitt called this spill “an odd scenario” because it was a third party contractor that caused the problem. He did add that if Valdosta gets their money back from the contractor “that’s not my problem.”
Davis concurred that “the permittee is the city of Valdosta, so they have ultimate authority.”
Commissioner Burnam asked if Truitt was talking about a new consent order or the existing one.
Truitt said he was talking about a new Consent Order, which could be separate, or could be an amendment to the current one.
EPA’s Carol Kemker said it would be a new Consent Order, and she expected it within weeeks. Well, it’s been almost three weeks. Where is it?
Chair Davis asked for clarification on Consent Orders. Kemker described the history of the Consent Order, which was mostly about the new Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plans (WWTP) needed to be built on higher ground, plus a force main and pump stations. She said they now knew that it needed to address third party contractors and oversight. She said it was still a draft order which had not been made public, “enforcement confidential.” She said she would take back suggestions, frustrations, etc. and put them into the process.
Chair Davis said people were concerned there had never been any consequences for Valdosta’s sewage system failures. He said people he talked to said it’s time for significant consequences, so they would get the picture it’s not just “we had another spill.”
220 years to fix? Need better oversight –Brannan, EPA
Video. Chuck Brannan said a Valdosta city official (“a black gentleman”, presumably Utilities Director Darryl Muse) said at a SRWMD meeting in Live Oak that it would take about 220 years to fix their sewer system problems.
Rep. Brannan may be referring to the February 12, 2019 SRWMD Board meeting, where SRWMD Board member Virginia Sanchez asked about that.
Rep. Brannan wondered if a Consent Order could speed that up.
EPA’s Kemker said regarding the man-made event, her expectation was that the new or revised Consent Order would have better oversight for everyone who touches that plant. She said her understanding was that Valdosta was working on improved Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) even before the Order comes out. She said EPA would like to see interim milestones with a reasonable period of time.
Permitting of “those ponds” and can EPA step in?
Video. Rep. Brannan complained that GA-EPD was holding up digging “those ponds”. EPA’s Kemker said GA-EPD issues the permit for the catch basin (at the entrance to the WWTP) in December. Brannan complained that nine months was too long.
Brannan referred to a late Friday call about the current spill, and wondered is it clogged up somewhere, is it going to dilute, will it break loose one day and come downstream? FDEP’s DeAngelo said Brannan had hit the three options, and all of them were likely. Rep. Shoaf said worst case another rain event would cause another spill. Brannan said that was why he wanted the catch basin done.
Sen. Montford wanted to know what legal option does the federal government have to address this issue if Valdosta does not. Rep. Shoaf said “keep in mind this has been going on for twenty to thirty years.”
EPA’s Ashbee said, “We’re not Clean Water Act attorneys up here.” He said EPA would have to get back about that.
Brannan was confused about why it took GA-EPD so long to issue the permit. EPA did not provide much clarification, and wondered how long it typically takes in Florida. FDEP’s John Truitt said 14.6 days to issue a permit. Rep. Shoaf wanted to know if EPA had anything to do with the permits for “those holding ponds”.
Chair Davis said some feedback he’d heard was that GA-EPD would send questions about for example soil perc[olat]ing, and he didn’t know how long it took Valdosta to respond. Rep. Brannan though that missed the mountain for the molehill.
Sen. Montford brought up the water wars between Georgia and Florida about the Appalachicola, Flint, and Chattahoochee river system. He wondered what the federal government could do in this Valdosta sewage case. (I think those are not similar cases at all.) He remarked that he didn’t want to be sitting there, caught himself, and said he wouldn’t be sitting there (he’s term-limited).
Long silence from EPA.
EPA Region 4 Chief of Staff Ashbee said that if GA-EPD did not do proper oversight, EPA could step in, but he didn’t know “statutorially, what that timeline would look like.”
Fines? Lawsuits? EPA answer questions?
Video. Sen. Montford wanted to know if EPA could fine Valdosta? Rep. Shoaf wanted to know if Valdosta had been following the existing Consent Order? EPA’s Ashbee said “under the Consent Order that’s being written.” EPA’s Kemker said the current Consent Order covers the force main, the WWTP, and pump stations, and that Valdosta has complied with investing in those components. She said a new order is needed because of oversight issues with the collection system.
Chair Davis brought up the Appalachicola water wars again. He wanted to know at what point does the state of Florida file a lawsuit against the state of Georgia or Valdosta? Rep. Shoaf said he didn’t think we wanted to get into a 20-30 year lawsuit.
There was more questioning of EPA, and more “we’re not Clean Water Act attorneys”.
Sen. Montford said “Georgia was invited to this meeting like everybody else.” He had previously noted they refused to appear in person or by phone. I talked to GA-EPD earlier that same morning, and was told they were not going to attend either this Madison meeting or the later tht same day Valdosta meeting, and GA-EPD indeed did not attend.
Sen. Montford wanted to know if there’s another meeting like this, “who do we need at the meeting who can answer these questions?”
EPA’s Ashbee said next time they’d make sure the right people would be there.
Sen. Montford said because the legislature would be in session, a next meeting might have to be in Tallahassee. Somebody suggested get Valdosta to pay for a bus.
Brian Myers(?), Public Affairs Section, EPA Region 4, said he’d been working with Sen. Scott’s office as far back as April setting up a meeting with Valdosta.
Brian Kauffman said the Task Force didn’t even get a “thank you for your letter” from EPA Region 4 Administrator Mary Walker. Somebody from EPA said he had never seen the letter.
I never got any response from EPA, either.
Should get attention like phosphate mine –Hamilton Co.
Video. Hamilton County’s Beth Burnam said about the phosphate mine there was a way to get the attention of all the regulators because of water quality, and Louie Goodin, Hamilton County Administrator, knew all the details. The mine had to replace wells, continually monitor private well water quality, etc.
Louie Goodin said the financial burden is not falling back on the county about the phosphate mine. But this Valdosta sewage problem crosses the state line and nothing is done abou t it.
Anthony Adams of Lafayette County said until this incident he was positive about what Valdosta had been saying. But 7.5 million gallons over 4 or more days worked out to almost 50,000 gallons an hour, and they didn’t even notice?
Chair Davis thanked the local health department for keeping Madison BOCC informed practically daily. Two of them nodded appreciatively in the front audience row: Bill Gibson and Madison Health Department Director Kim Albritton.
How to inform people? –Teena Kulakowski, Florida Campsites
Video. Teena Kulakowski, property owner, Florida Campsites, near Jasper, Hamilton County, Florida. She said her background is in environmental health care and she is a microbiologist: “This is serious.” She wanted to know how her neighbors would be informed, “I don’t want my neighbors to die.”
Help with E. coli systems –James McBrayer, Hamilton Co.
Video. James McBrayer, Hamilton County, said he had participated in several meetings, including the one in Valdosta (presumably July 10, 2019) where Valdosta gave a very good explanation, he said, from which he got that it would take hundreds of millions of dollars to fix all their problems. He mentioned that he pays their penny sales tax (SPLOST), and he takes passage of that tax as willingness to help pay to fix things. He speculated that Valdosta’s attorney told them not to come to this meeting. He said in Florida, Sen. Montford couldn’t even get (well) water testing passed. He remarked that well testing results were much worse in Hamilton than in Madison County, Florida. He asked Florida to “help us with the E. coli with systems.”
Only one Hamilton Co. well had E. coli
Video. Somebody from Florida Department of Health said actually only one Hamilton County well tested positive for E. coli. And that they also tested for Fecal coliform.
Testing, filters, funding, info –Chris Mericle, Hamilton Co.
Video. Chris Mericle of Hamilton County, “been recreating on the Withlacoochee River for thirty years approximately, riparian owner for twenty years.” He said he’d been involved in this process for years (for example the March 2015 meeting organized by WWALS in Valdosta).
Mericle said the time for talking is done. He recommended significant fines for this last spill and any future spills. He noted FDEP, FDOH, SRWMD, etc., were working on this, but “ the public doesn’t know what is going on. There is no system they can tap into.” He noted many officials had been on vacation over the holiday. Finally SRWMD started feeding him test results, but that’s not their job; “We need a system where we can put in our email and get test results.” He emphasized we need more testing, on a regular basis, to feed data to that system I’m talking about, so we the public can see what is going on at any given moment. And we need funds for testing and equipment such as McBrayer is asking for; filtering systems. “We’re done with talking; we need action.” He wanted an additional ask: an apology from Georgia or the city of Valdosta.
Sen. Montford clarified that he had not said we didn’t need more testing; merely that we had enough tests to know there’s a problem. And we need a streamlined system for informing the public.
Wells how far from Withlacoochee? –Sandy and counties
Video. Sandy (?) said she found out about this meeting via a google search. She said she had several auto-immune diseases, and wonders if there’s a map of how far out from the Withlacoochee River does the contamination bleed out. Madison County has one, presented earlier that same day at Madison BOCC. She’s also worried about pharmaceuticals in wells, and how to test for them. She says she also works in Brooks County at a plantation where she grows organic herbs and vegetables, and wants to get water tested there. She was really hoping somebody from Valdosta would be there.
Chair Davis asked if anybody from Valdosta was present. Nope.
Sandy wanted to know if Flowers was the lab to send test water to.
Hamilton County Coordinator Louie Goodin said they planned to continue well testing right along, spill or not, being pro-active, not reactive. He said they started that before this recent spill, so this time they have a baseline for comparison. Rep. Brannan wanted to know how far does the contamination radiate out? What’s the science for finding out the source? Valdosta? Neighbor’s septic tank? Goodin said they would continue testing.
Chair Davis said some folks in Madison County had volunteered their wells for similar testing.
Refinanced her house to buy filtration –Debbie
Video. Debbie (?) said last year when this happened (presumably meaning December 2018) she was told don’t shower or even wash clothes with the well water. She had to move out for weeks and refinance her house to buy a filtration system, because her elderly mother needed to be safe. She said there were also annual costs, such as replacing the UV light. Sen. Montford wanted to know if her terrible situation was unusual. She said she didn’t know, but it had happened to her every time there was a spill. She also paid for testing for her neighbors, but her neighbors don’t understand the health implications. “My God, the stress level it puts on people who do understand is tremendous.”
Lost tourism revenue –Phyllis Williams, Madco Chamber & Tourism
Video. Phyllis Williams, Madison County Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said she lives 3.5 miles west of the Withlacoochee River, and from a tourist development standpoint, we’ve lost a lot of revenue by not being able to market our outdoor recreation. She says marketing dollars would be wasted, because people would google and would see Valdosta sewage. She said part of the recovery process would be recuperation of development and advertising dollars to tell people it’s over.
Brooks & Lowndes Co. GA weren’t informed –Donnie Waldrep, Madco
Video. Donnie Waldrep, Madison County Commission Chair, said he had reached out to Brooks and Lowndes Counties, Georgia, and they had not been informed. He had invited them to participate in the Task Force, and they were receptive.
Need ongoing testing and timely publication –Suwannee Riverkeeper
Video. John S. Quarterman, Suwannee Riverkeeper, passed out a letter he sent to Sen. Montford the previous day. He (I) said I had included a much longer letter to GA-EPD. I said the catch basin, of which there would be only one, would not have stopped this recent spill, nor two million gallons of spills in December 2018. Georgia spills are all online at GA-EPD’s Sewage Spills Report, because thirty organizations in Georgia and Florida embarrassed GA-EPD into doing that by telling them Florida had been doing it for years. But that’s not the only reporting they need to do. As you just heard, Valdosta didn’t even tell Brooks County. It’s not even clear that Lowndes County was ever officially informed, even though that’s where Valdosta is.
Georgia Department of Health was not informed; I have it in writing. The one thing they did do was to volunteer free well testing for Lowndes and Brooks Counties. They do not have the authority to send out health advisories or to plant signs or to tell Valdosta to do those things. So who does?
GA-DOH says GA-EPD and Valdosta have that responsibility. Valdosta, when asked, says, “We did everything we were required to do.” Apparently they are not required to plant signs on the Withlacoochee River downsgtream from Sugar Creek.
Not only is part of Valdosta itself on that river, but there are at least four places where people go onto that river in Lowndes County and from Brooks County, and fish.
I spent an hour that same morning on the phone with GA-EPD. Apparently Valdosta’s SOP does not require Valdosta to do any of those things. Only to test one point upstream and one downstream on Sugar Creek. Valdosta did a little more, testing once or twice at GA 133, US 84, and GA 31, mostly after FDEP got them to do it.
Between US 84 and the state line are 27 river miles. The first alert put out by FDOH (thank you for being proactive), turned out not to be necessary, but nobody knew. The second alert similarly, because there are 27 river miles between US 84 and the state line.
The only organizations testing at Knights Ferry and Nankin Boat Ramps between US 84 and the state line are us (WWALS) and Lowndes County. It’s great that DEP is doing this compilation of data, but they omitted these other data sources.
What failed was the pump station on the force main, which is covered by the existing Consent Order. The problem is the current Consent Order only requires testing upstream and downstream on Sugar Creek. Can that be changed? Maybe. They did get my letter, and they will “look into it.” If there is another Consent Order, it definitely needs to cover these things.
Another thing, as you just heard from (Madison County) TDC, it is really difficult to advertise eco-tourism any place in the Suwannee River Basin. It’s not even just downstream from Valdosta, because google Suwannee and you see Valdosta wastewater spill. I imagine for example that’s why Columbia County and Alachua County are on the Task Force.
So, what can you do about that? One thing is, as Chris was saying, more testing. Yes, I understood your clarification, Senator. But we need more testing. We need it at least weekly. We need it regularly. And we need it published.
That’s a great set of data I finally got from DEP last night. So far as I know, we are the only organization ever to publish any of the sampling data that has been collected after this incident, since December 3rd. Somebody please correct me; tell me where we can find the Florida data online.
This is a problem. I mean, I don’t mind publishing it, but I don’t quite understand can not DEP do this, or the Florida Department of Health, or the Suwannee River Water Management District has a great water portal for their other sample data. And DEP is working on a water quality portal for the state. So far it only has south Florida data in it. Can we get this stuff in there, and we have it posted in a timely manner?
Until last night, I had been told repeatedly that the DEP data is only posted four months after it’s collected. What good is that, in this situation? Or any other situation?
So, we need more frequente, more regular, and published water quality data. With that, we can make sure people know when the rivers have tested clean. Which is very important for the eco-tourism, to try to lift the stigma — Merrillee’s word — stigma that’s on all these rivers.
Another tiny little thing I want to invite you all to. This was actually the idea of the incoming Mayor of Valdosta. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I like this idea. He asked for what he calls the Mayor’s Paddle on the Withlacoochee River. It’s scheduled for January 18th; it’s a Saturday. It’s going to be going through a stretch of river that was contaminated. A stretch that includes the outfall from the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant. So, we will be testing upstream and downstream from that.
And it will be very interesting if we find any place where there’s still bits of sewage on the side.
So I would like to invite you all to come to that. Thank you.
Help with well testing, filtration, and 6 Hamco wells E. coli –Debbie (?)
Video. Questions from Debbie(?):
EPA does not cover private wells?
EPA’s Kempker said no, EPA does not regulate private wells.
EPA’s Ashbee asked what specifically are you asking for?
How can you ask rivate citizens?
A: Under the Clean Water Act, no.
So where do we go to get help for more well testing and filtration?
Rep. Shoaf said, “Your first contact is your local health department.” He said he wanted to work it out with Valdosta, but if they won’t cooperate, EPA or lawsuit were the only remaining choices.
She had more questions. Sen. Montford asked her if she had them in writing. She said she would be happy to supply them to him in writing.
James McBrayer said he had called the Hamilton County Health Department, and 37% of wells had tested normal, the rest had some sort of Fecal coliform, of which six had E. coli. He said he got that from Jacqueline Deese. All those six wells are within a mile of the river.
Does contamination spread underground? –Stew Lilker
Video. Stew Lilker of Columbia County Observer wanted to know if over time the contamination would spread farther from the river? Sen. Montford said that was a good question. He said FDEP didn’t have to answer right then. FDEP’s John Truitt said it would be a modelling exercise.
Sen. Montford wanted to know even if Valdosta stopped spilling could there be other issues, such as septic tanks? FDEP’s DeAngelo said that could happen, also runoff from roads, fertilizer application, and other urban and agricultural sources. That makes it harder to determine what the source is.
Rep. Brannan wanted to know if a properly functioning septic tank could affect his own well? FDEP’s DeAngelo said it could.
Here’s a WWALS video playlist:
FL state Sen. Montford in Madison about Valdosta sewage 2020-01-08
Video by John S. Quarterman for WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc.
There are some higher resolution stills on the WWALS website. And this:
Suzy Hall with a Petrifilm.
Each bacterial test costs $6 for Petrifilms alone.
WWALS is spending about $40 a day on Petrifilms and other materials after this Valdosta spill.
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®
You can join this fun and work by becoming a WWALS member today!