Article courtesy of Martin J. Reed | July 24, 2015 | AL.com | Shared as educational material
Some 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of sewage overflowed from Pelham and spilled into Buck Creek leading to the Helena area on Wednesday morning after lightning may have blown a transformer and caused a pump to not work properly.
Pelham Director of Public Works Eddy Jowers said a “high-level alarm” went off around 9:30 or 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday to indicate wastewater was not decreasing as it should at the Buck Creek lift station near the old sewer plant in the city’s industrial park area.
“It was a high-level alarm in the station. In other words, it wasn’t pumping itself down,” Jowers said in an interview today.
The result: “The poop stayed in the lift station and the stuff coming down the sewer lines at the one manhole above it started running above the manhole,” Jowers said.
Jowers estimated around 3,000 gallons of sewage flowed into Buck Creek, while the Alabama Department of Environmental Management reported the amount was around 4,000 gallons.
Pelham officials informed the Helena city government and some landowners downstream about the spill. “The spill is the first one we’ve had in seven years I’ve been here,” Jowers said.
The Cahaba Riverkeeper environmental group that works to protect the waterway noticed alarming test results for E. coli and other bacteria today based on samples it took around 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday in Helena’s Buck Creek area.
The Cahaba Riverkeeper’s David Butler called the two results from just below the Buck Creek dam in Helena and an area further downstream “a heavily, heavily contaminated sample. … You would absolutely not want to be in that water.”
His organization took other samples this afternoon, but the results will not be ready for another 36 hours. He noted heavy recent rainfall likely contributed to the high contamination levels recorded Wednesday around the time of the spill.
“The biggest concern would have been Buck Creek for sure. We would anticipate the levels were still elevated on the Cahaba all the way down to (Highway) 52. We just don’t know how diluted it got once it started mixing with the river,” Butler said.
Whether people should get into the water around Buck Creek, he said, “If it were my family, I would say limited water contact. I don’t know if I would want my kids dunking their heads underwater or if I had a bunch of open cuts on my legs I would want to be in the water too long.”
Another sample taken near the Helena wastewater treatment plant “was very clean relative to the other two,” Butler said, indicating another site was the source of contamination.
“I think this situation really highlights why we started doing the testing we do to begin with because there is clearly a gap between what ADEM knows and what the public knows. Had we not been doing this testing and had it not happened around the time we were doing it, we may never have known about it because there’s not an easy way for the public to know,” he said.
In an interview today, Helena Mayor Mark Hall said Pelham officials informed workers at his city’s water treatment plant about the spill, prompting their own set of testing in Buck Creek.
“We’re still within the permit ranges set by ADEM,” Hall said. “It’s elevated on this end, but it’s not as high as it’s been this summer.”
Earlier this year the Cahaba Riverkeeper’s testing on April 10 indicated high levels of E. coli contamination in Helena’s Buck Creek area. The organization noted that heavy rainfall preceding the testing likely contributed to additional pollutants in the water.
Hall said people should be cautious when they get into Buck Creek. “We still encourage people not get it in their mouths, not to get it in open wounds,” he said.
Jowers suspects the sewage overflow from the manhole in the Stuart Lane area was caused a blown transformer that failed to properly supply electricity for the pumps to work.
“All the sewer flowing from the south end of the city runs into this lift station and it pumps it back up into the headworks of the sewer plant,” he said. “It wasn’t a total outage, but on a three-phase power system you have to have to have all three phases operational to run these big motors.”
Compounding the situation was a phase alarm that also failed to work. “That’s why we feel like it’s an anomaly,” Jowers said.
It took about three hours to get the problem fixed with the city getting a generator online and Alabama Power fixing the transformer. “We didn’t get it back into operation quick enough and some of it ran into the creek from the manhole,” he said.
Alabama Department of Environmental Management spokeswoman Lynn Battle said today Pelham complied with its permit by notifying the state and other agencies “as soon as possible upon becoming aware” of the spill on Wednesday morning.
The city must provide documentation about the unpermitted discharge to the state within five days of the incident. “An enforcement decision will be considered after all the information is received,” Battle said about any potential violation for the city.
Butler said he has contacted Pelham to help communicate any sewage spills in the future to the public. “We kind of agreed in the future they would keep us abreast of situations like this so when something like this happens, they would give us a call and give us an opportunity to let people know what’s going on,” he said.