Update 2023-07-29: Clean Withlacoochee River, filthy Crawford and Sugar Creeks 2023-07-28.
That word “immediately,” I don’t think it means wait yet another day before informing the public, after Valdosta Utilities already waited four days to tell GA-EPD about the sewage spill.
Even though Valdosta wrote to GA-EPD, “we did not observe any direct flow to the creek,” Valdosta’s own state-required followup testing showed too-high Fecal coliform and E. coli in Knights Creek a week later, downstream, but not upstream, of the spill. Just because they didn’t see the sewage running over the ground doesn’t mean it’s not seeping through the vegetation or the ground itself.
Maybe you’re as tired as I am of Valdosta blaming sewage spills on contractors. Who hires the contractors? Who supervises them? Why doesn’t Valdosta’s fancy SCADA system alert the city to these spills early, where, when, and how much?
The information seemed pretty skimpy that Valdosta Utilities supplied to the public about its July 6, 2023, sewage spill into Knights Creek. Also, I wanted to know when did Valdosta tell GA-EPD, since that spill did not show up in GA-EPD’s Sewage Spills Report for a long time, Not until after I asked GA-EPD about it, actually, even though Valdosta City Manager Richard Hardy had said he would look into that.
So I filed an open records request with the City of Valdosta for all communications between Valdosta and GA-EPD about Valdosta’s last three sewage spills. I only got back information about the Knights Creek spill, so here is that much.
Let me say that recent communications from Valdosta Utilities have been much improved in recent days, coming from Assistant Director Jason Barnes. Barnes took it upon himself to warn WWALS about contamination in Sugar Creek before the cleanup paddle we had scheduled for last Saturday, so we converted it into an on-land cleanup. That elevated Fecal coliform and E. coli came from Valdosta’s July 17, 2023, spill into Hightower Creek near River Street, upstream from Sugar Creek and the Withlacoochee River. Reporting for that July 17th spill was much better: a press release went out the next day, and it also appeared in GA-EPD’s Sewage Spills Report the day after the spill. And Jason Barnes showed up in person to see about getting a warning sign placed at Sugar Creek.
Back to the July 6, 2023, spill into Knights Creek, above Mud Swamp Creek, the Alapahoochee River, and the Alapaha River.
Utilities Director Bradley L. Eyre did not write to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) until July 10th, four days after the spill was discovered on July 6th.
The letter says, “Water quality sampling will be conducted above and below the spill location as required, signs posted and a press release issued immediately.”
The press release was actually issued at 6:24 PM the following day, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, five days after the spill was discovered.
I don’t think that word “immediately” means what Director Eyre seemed to think it meant.
Apparently GA-EPD has a similar opinion, since their reply on July 11th says in part, “In the future, please let us know once you are aware of the spill, even if it is still ongoing. This allows us to know about the spill as it is occurring and also helps us inform citizens if we receive complaints/questions.”
Apparently informing citizens is important to GA-EPD. Too bad it was not important to the City of Valdosta about this spill.
That reply from GA-EPD also noted, “I will be on the lookout for the final volume. Also, when can we be expecting the review of the proposed Consent Order back from the City?”
That’s right, four days after the spill was detected, Valdosta did not even have an estimate for how much had spilled. They came up with one before the end of that day: 194,251 gallons of raw sewage. For comparison, 10,000 gallons is the minimum to call it a major spill. So 19 times that.
Valdosta Utilities did start testing for Fecal coliform and E. coli. And I thank them for putting the test results on Valdosta’s own web pages. Actually, Valdosta had already been testing the same locations since its February 2023 major spill.
Anyway, those Knights Creek test results show that Valdosta got too-high results on July 10th, the day before their press release, and they did not mention that in the press release.
For comparison, 1,000 is the Georgia EPD alert limit, and 410 is the one-time test limit.
The results on the seventh day were still too high. Why did Valdosta stop testing? Let me guess. Is it the usual Valdosta excuse? Because they did the letter of what GA-EPD requires?
What about the people who fish downstream of there, or who may have wells nearby?
Valdosta told GA-EPD on July 12th that “we did not observe any direct flow to the creek.”
Yet Valdosta’s own test results say contamination got to the creek. Sure, for two days back in March they attribute contamination to rainfall. But there was no significant rain on Valdosta after the July 6th spill.
The press release gives a vague location of “near the 1800 block of East Park Avenue.” Utilities of course knew the precise location, 30.851385, -83.251667. That is not on E. Park Avenue at all, it is at least half a mile south-southeast, halfway to US 84.
Five days late and many dollars short of information to the public: that’s how Valdosta Utilities handled this Knights Creek spill.
We still don’t know how they handled their other two recent spills, because now six business days after my open records request for that, nothing has been returned. The time limit in Georgia law is three days for either supplying the information or saying why not or when it can be supplied.
This is what I asked for. Does it seem unclear? “Letters sent from the City of Valdosta to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (GA-EPD) about the sewage spills of June 21, 2023, on Williams Street into One Mile Branch, of July 6, 2023, on E. Park Ave. into Knights Creek, and of July 17, 2023, on River Street into a branch of Hightower Creek, as well as any email correspondence to or from GA-EPD and the City of Valdosta and any telephone logs or transcriptions or recordings related to those spills.
But I repeat that in recent days communications have been much improved from Valdosta Utilities, coming from Assistant Director Jason Barnes. Maybe that will continue.
Here is the PDF WWALS got in response to that open records request. Images of each page are below.
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®
-jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®