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In Irma’s wake, millions of gallons of sewage and wastewater are bubbling up across Florida

Flooding caused by Hurricane Irma is seen from a U.S. Marine helicopter accompanying President Trump as he flies over storm damage near Fort Myers, Fla. on Sept. 14. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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First Hurricane Irma blew through. Then the electricity went out. Then a work crew made an error while working on a pump station in the sewage system. And soon, 2,000 gallons of raw sewage was spilling onto a quiet residential street of ranch houses in Edgewater, a town south of Daytona Beach.

Benirose Demetita, administrator of Regency Elderly Care across the street, watched as city workers scrambled to contain the fetid mixture that spewed along Mango Tree Drive. “These guys from the city worked 24 hours trying to get that under control,” Demetita said.

The spill was one of scores of discharges of poorly treated wastewater and raw sewage into streets, lakes, rivers and neighborhoods, described in pollution filings that poured into the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

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In one incident, the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer authority discharged six million gallons of partially treated wastewater — “secondary effluent” — into Biscayne Bay. Bloomberg News said pollution spills reported to the state of Florida totaled 9 million gallons by Tuesday, and that number has continued to grow in recent days.

While runoff from chemical plants and oil refineries dirtied waters along the Texas Gulf Coast, sewage and other wastewater has posed the most immediate problem in Florida, raising the risk of disease, triggering algae blooms that can suffocate fish and other marine creatures, and complicating cleanup days after Hurricane Irma moved north.

“Even without hurricanes, the five U.S. Gulf Coast states are highly vulnerable to disease due to a unique mix of poverty, climate change and heat stress (the highest in North America), aggressive urbanization, and human migrations,” Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an email. “We are a global ‘hotspot’ for neglected tropical diseases. Now the hurricanes threaten to further amplify this problem.”

Because of its flat terrain, Florida relies heavily on wastewater lift stations with pumps to move sewage.

Those pumps require electricity. In 2012, the state required that pumping stations be able to withstand 25-year floods, or in some cases 10-year floods. But after Irma, electricity has been in short supply, with millions of customers cut off along with the sewage pump stations.

With the power out, pumps didn’t work in the town of Weeki Wachee, about an hour’s drive north of Tampa, and 2,500 gallons of wastewater was spilled into a wetland area next to a residential street.

Pumps lost power in Clearwater, and 338,000 gallons of partially treated effluent flowed into Stevenson Creek.

In St. Petersburg, after a power failure shut off sewage pumps, two locations each sent more than 3,000 gallons containing raw sewage into the Clam Bayou and Big Bayou.

In Miami-Dade County, an estimated 30,256 gallons of raw sewage poured into a small public park on the edge of Big Bayou for more than four hours before the utility stanched the flow.

In all these cases, the sewage and water utility said it has spread lime on the discharges and pronounced them cleaned up.

Kelly Cox, a staff attorney and program director for the environmental group Miami Waterkeeper, said her inbox was full of email alerts from Florida’s DEP about reports of unauthorized sewage overflows and other spills.

“It’s been unreal to see,” Cox said. “It’s one after the other. … It’s kind of mind blowing at this point.”

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Cox said that South Florida, in particular, has faced water challenges for generations, due to its low elevation near the ocean, its aging infrastructure and the porous limestone rock that much of the area sits upon.

In addition, Cox said, nearly a third of residents rely upon septic systems that can become overwhelmed during storms. And the area’s sewage systems also are old, low-lying and unable to handle the flow of water an Irma-like storm brings.

“A lot of our treatment plans have the ability to handle double the normal capacity,” she said. “[But] when a storm the magnitude of Irma hits, you’re way over capacity. … Our systems are overburdened by this storm.”

“Florida’s wastewater system is increasing in age and the condition of installed treatment and conveyance systems is declining,” said a report last year by the American Society of Civil Engineers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the total needs in Florida’s wastewater infrastructure increased from $12.7 billion in 2004 to $17.1 billion in 2008 to 18.4 billion in 2012. Those costs are likely to continue rising, as municipalities replace pipes, treatment plants and other drinking water systems even as the state’s population continues to grow.

Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Florida DEP, said that Florida’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund program provides low-interest loans aimed at planning, designing and constructing water pollution control facilities. The program has awarded more than $4 billion in loans for wastewater and storm water improvement projects since its inception in 1989, she said.

The EPA this week wrote to the head of the Florida DEP, assuring the agency that federal officials would be understanding when it comes to the release of contaminated stormwater discharges happening across the state.

“Hurricane Irma has produced circumstances beyond the reasonable control for some permitters to maintain full compliance with their permit provisions,” an EPA official wrote. “The EPA also recognizes there may be other unforeseen issues that arise as a result of this disaster and we stand ready to work together with our state partners to address these potential issues as they arise. The EPA recognizes the importance of keeping these facilities operating and where necessary getting the facilities back on line as soon as possible.”

As the waters recede, the reports of pollution violations to the Florida DEP have mounted.

In many places, wastewater systems ran backward. In an neighborhood of Orlando, flooding caused a filter system to overflow and about 10,000 gallons of partly treated effluent bubbled up through the manhole covers. A sewer backed up into six homes and the sewage ran into storm water ponds.

Other harmful chemicals have been mixed in with Florida’s wastewater. A fallen tree ruptured a fuel tank line for an irrigation system, spilling 200 gallons of fuel into Lake Reedy in Frostproof.

Ramping up shuttered facilities also has perils. In DeLand, the powering up of a sewage system caused a 1,000-gallon surge of untreated domestic wastewater into a business.

“We learned a lot of lessons after Katrina,” Hotez said. “We learned that prolonged contact with floodwaters on the Gulf leads to terrible skin infections from Staphylococcus, including antibiotic resistant Staph, also a unique Vibrio bacterial infection on the Gulf that can lead to sepsis and death.”

“We learned that floodwaters can have high ‘coliform’ bacterial counts from sewage contamination — meaning intestinal bacterial infections,” Hotez said. “We can anticipate the health impact of both Harvey and Irma will be with us for the next few weeks.”