Location of Quitman sewage spill 2022-03-20

Update 2022-04-08: All rivers bad water quality 2022-04-07.

Quitman’s 48,000 gallon sewage spill on Sunday, March 20, 2022, was from the Quitman settling ponds, which are slightly uphill from Okapilco Creek. Which explains why Valdosta got too-high E. coli at US 84 on Okapilco Creek, and at Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line Boat Ramps downstream on the Withlacoochee River.

We know this location because of the response to the WWALS open records request to Quitman asking where is this “Influent Liftstation”:

GPS 30.793581, -83.544316
800 North Highland Dr

This has been going on for years. For example, the April 24, 2022 spill from the same location contaminated the Withlacoochee River and the Suwannee River probably as far as Running Springs, if not all the way to the Gulf.

The form Quitman’s contractor sent GA-EPD says the spill was not preventable. Well, according to Quitman’s permit from GA-EPD, “Power failure” is not an excuse, because the permitee is supposed to have backup power. It’s time for Quitman to find a way to prevent these spills from contaminating Okapilco Creek and the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. This is a public health hazard.

What will the Georgia Environment Protection Division (GA-EPD) do to stop these spills from Quitman, and meanwhile to get much more timely reporting by Quitman to GA-EPD and to the public?

[Map and doc: location of Quitman sewage spill]
Map and doc: location of Quitman sewage spill

It’s only 1.10 creek miles to US 84, and 5 creek miles all the way down Okapilco Creek to the Withlacoochee River. Then 3.68 river miles more to Knights Ferry Boat Ramp, for 8.68 water miles total. At even two miles per hour, that’s less than five hours for contamination to travel.

[Map: Quitman sewage ponds to Withlacoochee River]
Map: Quitman sewage ponds to Withlacoochee River in the WWALS map of the Withlacoochee and Little River Water Trail (WLRWT).

In this map you can see how close the settling ponds are to Okapilco Creek. At high water, even closer, as the creek expands into its flood plain.

[Map: Quitman sewage ponds to Okapilco Creek]
Map: Quitman sewage ponds to Okapilco Creek

The form says Quitman notified GA-EPD on Tuesday, March 22nd. That’s already quite late, considering for Monday, March 21st, Valdosta got 1,200 cfu/100 mL for US 84 on Okapilco Creek, and on the Withlacoochee River 490 at Knights Ferry, 450 at Nankin, and 690 at State Line Boat Ramp. All those are higher than the 410 one-time sample limit, and one higher than the 1,000 action limit. We did not know about those Valdosta downstream results until Friday, March 25th, when Valdosta published them on Valdosta’s website.

[Quitman Spill, Charts 2022-03-20]
Quitman Spill, Charts 2022-03-20

But we did not know about the Quitman spill until it appeared in the GA-EPD Sewage Spills Report on Tuesday, March 29. That’s right, nine days after it happened this spill appeared in GA-EPD’s Sewage Spills Report.

[Quitman-Spill-032822-0001]
Quitman-Spill-032822-0001
PDF

We have a number of questions:

  • How is “Influent station at WWTP” an adequate answer to “Location of Spill: (be specific)”?
    1. Why did GA-EPD accept that answer?
    2. Why did GA-EPD reword it as “Influent Liftstation”?
    3. Will GA-EPD stop accepting vague answers like this (or like Valdosta’s “800 block”) to this question?
  • Why did this spill happen? The GA-EPD report says “Power failure”. Why doesn’t Quitman have a backup generator, like the 37 lift station generators Valdosta just finished buying? According to the Quitman WPCP permit from GA-EPD, page 18, Part II.A.7. POWER FAILURES:

    If the primary source of power to this facility is reduced or lost, the permittee shall use an alternative source of power to reduce or control all discharges to maintain permit compliance.

  • The form says for “Spill Duration (hours)”: “intermittently over 20 hour time” Why did it last so long? How does “intermittently” square with power failure? Towards the bottom of the form there is a partial explanation, although it’s not clear how “high flows” cannot have been anticipated:

    Cause of Spill: During high flows a power outage was experienced and the backup power failed to come on. A bypass was installed and lost prime several times before getting the issue fixed. One pump was damaged during the event.

  • The form says GA-EPD was notified on Tuesday, March 22. Why didn’t this spill appear in the GA-EPD Sewage Spills Report that same day?
  • According to the open records response, the form was only sent to GA-EPD on Monday, March 28, a week after the spill ended. Why so late? A written report of noncompliance is required within five (5) days of becoming aware of noncompliance, according to page 17, Part II.A.2. of the Quitman WPCP permit from GA-EPD. It doesn’t say five business days. See also Page 20, Part II.A.12.f.

    Within five (5) days (of the date of the spill or major spill), the owner of a POTW shall submit to EPD a written report which includes the same information required in (c)(a-b) above.

  • According to the form, this was a major spill, yet media were only notified on Monday, March 28, a week after the spill. That’s not “[w]ithin 24 hours of becoming aware of a spill or major spill….” See page 20, Part II.A.12.e.

    Within 24 hours of becoming aware of a spill or major spill, the owner of a POTW shall report the incident to the local media (television, radio, and print media). The report shall include the same information required in (c)(a-b) above.

  • What steps did Quitman take to reduce the public health hazard this spill caused on Okapilco Creek and the Withlacoochee River, and possibly in nearby wells? See page 18, Part II.A.8. ADVERSE IMPACT:

    The permittee shall take all reasonable steps to minimize or prevent any discharge or sludge disposal which might adversely affect human health or the environment.

  • Did Quitman inform any users of Okapilco Creek or the Withlacoochee River? Did it call landowners near the creek or river? See “immediately” in Page 19, Part II.A.12.a. NOTICE CONCERNING ENDANGERING WATERS OF THE STATE:

    Whenever, because of an accident or otherwise, any toxic or taste and color producing substance, or any other substance which would endanger downstream users of the waters of the State or would damage property, is discharged into such waters, or is so placed that it might flow, be washed, or fall into them, it shall be the duty of the person in charge of such substances at the time to forthwith notify EPD in person or by telephone of the location and nature of the danger, and it shall be such person’s further duty to immediately take all reasonable and necessary steps to prevent injury to property and downstream users of said water.

  • Did Quitman post signs at US 84 on Okapilco Creek and Knights Ferry, Nankin, and State Line Boat Ramps on the Withlacoochee River? See page 20, Part II.A.12.d.

    Post a notice as close as possible to where the spill or major spill occurred and where the spill entered State waters and also post additional notices along portions of the waterway affected by the incident (i.e. bridge crossings, boat ramps, recreational areas, and other points of public access to the affected waterway). The notice at a minimum shall include the same information required in (c)(a-b) above. These notices shall remain in place for a minimum of seven days after the spill or major spill has ceased.

    At the bottom of the form, signage is mentioned, but not where:

    Corrective Actions/Comments:

    A new pump was installed and the generator is being repaired. All debris has been cleaned up, lime and signage are being put out. Sample was began for both up and down stream loactions and will continue per EPD guidelines. A notice is being sent to the newspaper, local health dept and posted at City Hall.

Given these numerous infractions of Quitman’s permit and the ensuing recurring public health hazard, the big question is, what will GA-EPD do to

  1. Get Quitman to report spills to GA-EPD and the public in a much more timely manner?
  2. Get Quitman to stop having these spills?

Please see page 21:

II.B. RESPONSIBILITIES

1. COMPLIANCE

The permittee must comply with this permit. Any permit noncompliance is a violation of the State Act, and the Rules, and is grounds for:

  1. Enforcement action;
  2. Permit termination, revocation and reissuance, or modification; or
  3. Denial of a permit renewal application.

It shall not be a defense of the permittee in an enforcement action that it would have been necessary to halt or reduce the permitted activity to maintain compliance with the conditions of this permit.

As we know from the 2020 Consent Order on Valdosta, enforcement action can include fines and testing requirements: those Monday, March 21, 2022, test results are part of the thrice-weekly testing required by that Consent Order.

What will GA-EPD do to stop Quitman’s spills and late reporting?

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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