​Hurricane Irma and Sewage Spills:

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Jennifer Rubiello

How Hurricanes like Irma overwhelm sewer systems, impact the environment, and threaten public health

Environment Florida

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— As Florida recovers from Hurricane Irma and the Caribbean braces for yet another devastating storm, a new factsheet by Environment Florida finds that many of the sewer systems in the state’s biggest coastal cities were ill-prepared to handle Irma’s heavy rains and high tides. Over 28 million gallons of wastewater have spilled across Florida in the wake of Hurricane Irma, including raw sewage which contains pathogens that threaten both the environment and public health.

“Hurricanes are a fact of life in Florida, but sewage in our streets and bays shouldn’t be,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida. “As these storms get more severe and frequent, we have to be ready for some pretty challenging conditions. We’re not ready now.”

Florida’s low-lying geography and miles of coastline put the state at increased risk of flooding, especially during hurricanes. Flooding can overwhelm inadequately maintained sewer systems, and when high winds down power lines, treatment plants are left with little to no ability to process the extra flow, and the result can be large-scale leakage of sewage.

“Sewage pollution is not a problem unique to Florida,” said Annie Beaman director of advocacy and outreach with Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “But it is particularly bad here due to consistent population growth, increasingly severe weather events, and decades of inadequate investment in wastewater infrastructure. It’s essential that state and local officials prioritize sewer system improvements over the long-term, not just after major storms and spills.”

In addition to the health risks they cause, sewage spills pose a threat to the environment.

“Elevated levels of nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage spills can pollute oceans, lakes and rivers,” said Justin Bloom, director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “These nutrients can trigger algae blooms that eventually suffocate wildlife.”

Even the bacteria and viruses in wastewater can infect animals as well as humans, putting native species in jeopardy.

Hurricane Irma overwhelmed sewage systems throughout Florida:

  • In Fort Myers, 32 of the city’s 200 or so lift stations were offline as of September 14, with local reports of wastewater flowing out of yards and into streets.
  • From September 11 to 13, Jacksonville Electric Authority reported spilling more than 2.2 million gallons of sewage due to power outages, water inflows and equipment failure following the hurricane.
  • The sewer authority in Miami-Dade County reported releasing 6 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into Biscayne Bay.
  • A boil-water notice was sent to all residents in Collier County following “extensive damage” to sewer and drinking water lines on September 11.

“Sewage isn’t just disgusting. It’s also a health hazard that can make us really sick,” said Rubiello. “We need to do everything we can to keep it away from our homes.”

To prepare for future storms, Environment Florida called on decision-makers to update leaky pipes and ensure that pumping stations have access to power, as well as implement low-tech solutions to minimize future spills including installing rain barrels and restoring Florida’s natural protector against flooding — the state’s wetlands.

Environment Florida is a statewide, citizen based environmental advocacy organization working for clean air, clean water and open space.

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