State of creeks, drinking water a week after spill

Hogtown, Possum declared safe; boil-water notice lingering


In this file photo, worker with GRU walks up the sidewalk near where a large sewage spill occurred off SW 34th Street in Gainesville, Saturday July 27, 2013. The leak in a sewage line was compounded with a malfunction of a valve that caused a large spill of sewage that began Friday morning and was not sealed up until early Saturday evening.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.

For almost a decade, Andrew Tyson has found that perfect balance living at a home out in the woods but only minutes from the stores and restaurants of Gainesville.

Tree canopies shade the bumpy dirt roads that cut between large homesteads in this swath of woods a short distance east of Tower Road. Hawks, deer, coyotes and owls are commonplace, Tyson said. When a fallen tree blocks a roadway, neighbors head out with chain saws to cut the trunk and clear the way.

A short walk from Tyson's gate to a neighbor's sprawling yard, Hogtown Creek ends its winding journey through Gainesville and flows into the aquifer at Haile Sink. For the past week, the water flowing through it has been a point of concern for Tyson and the other residents who rely on private wells for their drinking and household water supplies.

Last weekend, an estimated 900,000 gallons of untreated wastewater flowed into Hogtown Creek and its tributary, Possum Creek, as a result of a Gainesville Regional Utilities' sewer leak along Southwest 34th Street.

Since then, Tyson and his neighbors have been under a boil-water notice while the Alachua County Health Department continues to collect samples from their wells and test for bacteria and other contaminants.

It's not that much of an inconvenience, Tyson said. He's English and enjoys drinking tea, so boiling water was already a daily habit.

Still, he said he is concerned about health risks, particularly after some tests showed the presence of total coliform — a common-occurring group of bacteria that does indicate contamination of a water supply by some outside source.

Through Friday, those tests have not shown the presence of fecal coliform in the private wells, which would indicate the presence of contamination from the sewage spill.

Tyson said he is not angry at GRU. The decision to discharge sewage into the creeks affected fewer than three dozen homes on private wells, and the utility believed the alternative was the possibility of sewage backing up into homes and businesses. "I'm not upset," neighbor Charles Morris said. "It happens. We're just lucky to live back here in paradise so close to all these conveniences."

As of Friday, the Health Department had concluded that there were no longer elevated levels of fecal coliform in the Hogtown or Possum creeks and that they were safe for human contact. Anthony Dennis, the department's environmental health director, credited the heavy rains this past week with cleaning the creek system. "We fortunately had a huge dilution factor with all this rain," Dennis said. "Dilution is the solution to pollution. It's true in this instance."

But the boil-water notice remains in effect, and the tests on private wells will continue, Dennis said, because it is uncertain if any wastewater from the spill reached the areas from which the private wells pump groundwater.

"That will be in effect until we are confident the water is safe to drink," Dennis said. "We have not seen an impact from the creek contamination to the private wells. But I have to preface everything to say ‘at this time' because we don't know the travel time."

Meanwhile, GRU has brought in the engineering firm of CH2M Hill — at an ultimate cost not yet determined — to review the circumstances surrounding the leak.

It began on July 26 with a joint failure and was small at first. But a valve broke during the repair, requiring the discharge of wastewater into the creeks to ensure the system did not back up and that crews could make repairs.

The joint and sewer line in question were 10 years old and were installed after a 2.5 million-gallon leak in 2003 in the same area along Southwest 34th Street.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has not yet decided on any enforcement action or fine against GRU for the late July sewage spill, a spokesperson said in an email Thursday.

"We know there will be fines," David Richardson, GRU's assistant general manager for water/wastewater, told commissioners during a Thursday evening meeting.

He said the utility may, as an alternative to a fine, take on a pollution reduction project.

Richardson said the evaluation of the spill also would look at whether the manufacturer or the contractor that installed the sewer line might have some liability for the joint failure. He said there also were concerns about the long-term integrity of the repair job just completed and that it would be evaluated, as well.

GRU has, over the years, reduced its number of sewage spills.

Back in 2003, the year of the 2.5 million-gallon spill along Southwest 34th Street, GRU reported about 32 spills, including five in a one-month span between late July and late August. That year, the DEP fined the utility more than $45,000.

From 2004 through 2012, the utility had 87 total spills, an average of less than 10 a year. There have been six so far in 2013.

GRU has approximately 750 miles of sewer line. The utility is below the national average of three spills per 100 miles.

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