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SEWAGE SPILL AFTERMATH

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Pompano! Magazine’s City Beat Reporter Marie Puleo. She can be emailed at puleo.marie@gmail.com

By Marie Puleo

While there are many more steps to take to return to normalcy, the city continues to recover from the aftermath of the sewage spill that was caused on Jan. 4, when a subcontractor working for the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) accidentally ruptured a 42-inch force main sewage pipe at NW 15 Street, just east of the I-95 overpass. For six days, close to 50 million gallons of raw sewage is estimated to have spewed into the canal system before the sewage pipe could be repaired, according to the City’s latest calculations. 

The sewage flowed into the C-1 canal at the accident site, continued southward into the Pompano Canal and then out the G-57 gate on the C-16 canal (at the southeast corner of Cypress Road and Atlantic Boulevard), all the way to the Intracoastal Waterway. 

The spill impacted the Canal Pointe subdivision located just north of the accident site, a group of homes just north of Atlantic Boulevard adjacent to I-95, and the neighborhoods of Avondale, Garden Isles, Snug Harbor, Cypress Isles Estates, Cypress Harbor and Lake Santa Barbara. The High Ridge Estates neighborhood north of McNab Road was also affected. The further east the sewage went, the more diluted it got. At the height of the incident, depending upon which direction the wind was blowing, other communities were impacted by the foul odor for a number of days. 

Although the city’s drinking water was not affected in any way, an advisory was issued for people not to fish, swim or irrigate from the canals. The advisory was rescinded on Feb. 12.

While city officials and staff have been working to remediate the impacts of the disaster, they have also been working to put measures in place to be prepared for any similar situation that may occur in the future.

“This is something that no one had thought about,” said City Manager Greg Harrison at a city commission meeting shortly after the spill had been contained. “That line has been in the ground for 45 years and never ever was disturbed.” 

His office, along with engineering and utilities staff, will be working with a consultant to study the wastewater force main system and look for alternative response options.

One of those alternatives could be creating a valve bypass system to divert sewage waste if a major rupture were to happen again.

“The only pure sure-fire way of doing this is to duplicate the line, pair it up all the way through the city, and that may very well be what we will have to come back to you with once we get through with this analysis,” Harrison told the Commission.

Harrison said that, in the meantime, the City is going to make sure it keeps repair materials on hand for this type of pipe. He explained that one of the reasons the repair took so long was that some materials had to be borrowed from the county, and some had to be made in a facility in Texas.  

The City is also working to put an emergency repair contract in place, which will be brought to the City Commission. The City already has a contractor that does routine repairs of its utility systems. The new contract would be for emergency repair of the utility systems, including water, reuse water, wastewater and stormwater systems.

“We are thinking ahead,” said Harrison. “We are trying to make sure that this is taken care of so that it won’t happen again.” 

Mayor Rex Hardin and other City Commissioners, as well as some residents, expressed dissatisfaction that they weren’t notified sooner of the spill after it happened. The accident took place on a Friday, and a notice didn’t go out until the following Monday afternoon. 

“I have let staff know that in the future the Commission needs to be fully informed of anything of this nature from the second it happens,” said Hardin. “And it needs to be codified in the policies and procedures of the City. We are ultimately the ones who are responsible to the public, and it’s important that we know what’s going on.”

Hardin said he wants to be informed “by telephone immediately with accurate information.” 

After the initial delay in notifying the public about the sewage spill, the City issued two Code Red alerts, three press releases and daily updates via the City’s website, Facebook, Twitter and the Garden Isles email distribution list. Additionally, warning signs were posted and 4,000 door-hangers were placed on all homes near the affected canals.

According to an FDOT project spokesperson, Arc Electric, the subcontractor that pierced the pressurized sewage pipe, was installing fiber optic cables that connect to cameras along I-95, which in turn connect to a traffic management center that monitors the expressway in real-time so it can update the overhead message boards or notify first responders accordingly.

The sewage pipe was 17 feet underground. The project spokesperson said the minimum depth for installing fiber optic cable underneath a road is 10 feet from the top surface. If there’s an existing pipe or other utility, they have to place the cable a certain distance beneath it, and in this case, the specification was three feet below the 42-inch force main pipe.  

According to Mayor Rex Hardin, about three or four fiber optic cable conduits were already bored and in place, but it was determined that additional capacity was needed, so Arc Electric was called back out to drill another hole. Apparently, they figured they knew where the force main pipe was because they had drilled the other holes, but the pipe runs at a slope in that area, and they drilled into it. 

“If they had called the City to get specifications, we could have told them exactly where it was, and then they could have adjusted the depth that they were drilling to and this wouldn’t have happened,” said Hardin. 

FDOT’s prime contractor for the I-95 project is Prince Construction. Prince subcontracted to SICE, a multinational technology integration company which, in turn, subcontracted to Arc Electric.

The City has been carrying out its cleanup efforts in conjunction with FDOT, the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Health in Broward County.

As directed by the Department of Environmental Protection, a total of 147 aerators (hoses connected to large air compressors on land) were placed in the affected canals to increase dissolved oxygen and stimulate biodegradation of the harmful fecal bacteria, which do not like an oxygen-rich environment. The number of aerators was gradually reduced, as surface water sampling results showed that at all 16 sampling locations the level of fecal bacteria had dropped well below the target level of 800 colony-forming units per 100 ml. The daily water sampling program for fecal bacteria was put into effect on Jan. 7 and ended on Feb. 8.

Weekly water testing began on Feb. 11 to check for elements that will help determine if there are any lasting impacts on the environment and human health.

Initial response efforts to the sewage spill included industrial vacuum trucks at the spill site that carried out a week-long effort to remove all floatable solids trapped by the barriers, gate structures and culverts located in the C-1 canal. Vacuum trucks were also used at 50 lift stations in the eastern portion of the city in an attempt to repair the sewage pipe. Daily inspection and removal of dead fish both east and west of the G-57 structure also began.

Next Steps

Now that surface water quality in the affected waterways has improved, testing has begun to determine the amount and location of sewage accumulated on the bottom of the canals and waterways as a result of the spill.

The testing is the first step in a remediation plan that Aptim Environmental & Infrastructure, FDOT’s environmental consultant, submitted on Jan. 31 to the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department on behalf of the City and FDOT’s subcontractor SICE. 

The first week of February, sediment core sampling began at the NW 15th Street spill site, moving southward along the C-1 canal, and going all the way to the G-57 gate. A second method of testing, using industrial vacuum trucks to extract submerged sediment, was anticipated to be completed at the end of February. 

Once it has been assessed how much sediment there is, and where it is, the most efficient removal option can be selected. There is no clear determination yet on when the remediation plan will be completed because the extent of the contamination is still not known.

The remediation will not be a routine activity. According to environmental experts, large-scale sewage spills of this nature are few and far between, and it’s very unusual for them to spill into canals. Normally, they hit open water bodies, or they don’t hit a water body at all. 

One expert noted that if the sewage hadn’t spilled into the canal at NW 15th Street, it would have flooded the entire neighborhood, between I-95 and Dixie Highway. 

“It’s bad either way, but at least you had millions of gallons with a way to get out of there.”

Notice Of Violation And Hearing, Possible Fines

On Feb. 7, the City of Pompano Beach, as well as FDOT and Prince Contracting, received a Notice of Violation and Hearing from the Broward County Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department (EPGMD). The notice identifies six instances in which the EPGMD believes sections of the Broward County Code of Ordinances were violated. 

On March 28, a hearing is scheduled to take place before a Broward County hearing examiner, during which a civil penalty of up to $15,000 per violation per day may be assessed. The City plans to rebut the majority of the allegations at the hearing.

Four of the violations are addressed to all three parties, and are related to causing water pollution and circumstances constituting a nuisance by discharging untreated sewage. A letter from City Manager Greg Harrison in response to the Notice of Violation disputes the inclusion of Pompano Beach in these counts, asserting that the responsibility for the breach of the sewage pipe and the resulting sewage spill lies with FDOT and its contractors.

The other two violations are addressed to only Pompano Beach. One was for failing to carry out water samples on Jan. 5, 6 and 7 after the untreated sewage spill occurred on Jan. 4. The other was for failing to include in the City’s Wastewater Continuity of Service Plan a method of notification to residents and businesses impacted by a sewage spill or abnormal event and by failing to provide adequate notice to residents and businesses on Jan. 4, 5 and 6. 

In his response letter, Harrison said that staff did not take water samples the first few days following the sewage spill because they were focused on trying to stop the flow. He said the City is evaluating whether the requirement is to take a water sample during an ongoing spill or after the spill is stopped. If the requirement is that a sample must be taken while the sewage is still spewing, the City will ensure its compliance in any similar incident that might occur. 

Harrison also said that the City will amend its Wastewater Continuity of Service Plan to include a provision for a method of public notification. 

So far, the sewage spill has cost the City approximately $2.5 million, which city officials expect to get back from FDOT and its prime contractor and subcontractors.  

The damage to wildlife has been primarily to fish and a few turtles. According to people who were out on the City’s canal boat, hundreds of tiny fish measuring a quarter-inch to a half-inch long were killed, but the number of larger fish was much less. FDOT contractors and City of Pompano Beach employees removed the fish by boat and canal bank using fishnets.

To ensure the interests of the City and its residents are protected, the City hired an environmental law firm (Manson Bolves Donaldson Varn) that has substantial experience in water quality issues.

While FDOT is responsible to comply with state and local regulations regarding the spill and the remediation, the City has retained a third-party environmental consultant, Janicki Environmental, Inc., to monitor their work. Janicki Environmental’s tasks include reviewing water quality data and providing an analysis of the potential, or likely, environmental and human health effects due to the spill, and developing recommendations to address the identified issues. 

“It’s important to figure out what we would do differently in the future,” said Mayor Rex Hardin. “We’ve gone through an eye-opening experience, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have it happen again.”

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