Southeast
Gerald Herbert / AP Photo

FL - After Ian, Florida’s waterways could remain polluted for months

In the weeks since Ian pulled away from the Sunshine State, city workers and concerned citizens filed hundreds of pollution reports to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection

As Hurricane Ian plowed across central Florida at the end of September, the manager of a Port Orange wastewater facility was worried about what would happen when the storm forced wastewater to overflow from a four-mile pipe and into a nearby body of water. He was searching desperately for a chemical compound that would reduce harm to marine and human life. But there wouldn’t be any accessible for almost two more days.

“We tried other providers but they were strapped as well due to Hurricane Ian,” Chris Wall, manager of the water reclamation facility, said in a recent filing to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The untreated wastewater overflowed from the site — accounting for just some of the millions of gallons of spills that have been reported around the state since the storm. In the weeks since Ian pulled away from the Sunshine State, city workers and concerned citizens have filed hundreds of pollution reports to the state’s DEP. Many of the most frequent in Florida were linked to sewage systems, which unloaded harmful bacteria and viruses for humans into waterways. Researchers say it could take months before the ocean flushes out the contaminated water.

“We knew that there was a large amount of sewage that was being released into the waterways, not just in one area, but in many areas,” said Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Coastal & Heartland National Estuary Partnership (CHNEP), part of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Estuary Program. “I’ve been working on this for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never encountered anything of this scale and magnitude.”

As more debris has cleared a month after Ian’s landfall, the CHNEP and its environmental partners have been able to take samples from watersheds, rivers and estuaries in southwest Florida to assess for common pollutants and bacteria. Still, Hecker said conditions in mid-October for sampling water were not ideal; some boat ramps had still been blocked and access to certain waterways remained difficult because of damage from the storm.

As of mid-October, the team had found numerous places where the water was six to 10 times the state’s safety threshold for the types of bacteria found in feces such as E. coli and enterococci. Those bacteria can cause urinary tract infections, life-threatening inflammation to the heart and other serious infections.

As of Nov. 1, microscopic algae called Karenia brevis (commonly known as red tide) were also present at high enough concentrations to cause respiratory issues for people in Charlette, Lee and Sarasota counties, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“From Sarasota Bay south to Naples, levels of bacteria in the water are generally elevated and well above what the criteria are for bacteria in our in our waterways,” said Christine Angelini, director of the University of Florida’s Center for Coastal Solutions, which is one of CHNEP’s partners collecting data.

Additionally, she said an excess of nutrients and debris were depleting oxygen levels in major waterways, such as the Peace River, which could lead to massive loss of fish important for the state’s economy.

Ian’s torrential rainfall and historic storm surge strained sewage systems that were already vulnerable. Florida’s wastewater systems rely heavily on electric “lift stations” that pump wastewater from trenches about 10 feet deep up to surface-level plants that clean the water. These stations are inexpensive and use smaller pipelines at shallow depths.

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