Hurricane Idalia Caused Widespread Pollution in Florida’s Waterways

While Hurricane Idalia ravaged Florida’s Big Bend region, rain and wind from the massive storm also caused wastewater leaks, chemical dumps and fuel spills in Tampa Bay and other storm-struck parts of the state.

At least 26,000 gallons of wastewater spills, mostly raw sewage, were reported to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as of Friday.

In each instance, the flooding was so severe that officials said it’s not possible to tell exactly how much wastewater was released. Instead, estimates were provided.

In Tampa Bay and neighboring tributaries like the Manatee River and Boca Ciega Bay, winds and high seas toppled boats, sending their gasoline into the waters below. Hurricane Idalia’s floodwaters are also being blamed for a kerosene leak that sent flammable liquid into a St. Petersburg mobile home park.

The early snapshot of Idalia’s environmental impacts, gleaned from state and federal pollution reports, underscores the typical reality following a major hurricane’s landfall: Waterways under the storm’s crosshairs get stirred with human sewage, gas and whatever else may have mixed with storm surge.

Wastewater, especially when it’s untreated sewage like in the case of Idalia, can contain red tide-fueling nitrogen and other contaminants that can help a bloom thrive in the right conditions. High volumes of sewage or gasoline dumps can cause fish kills and marine life death.

Several high-profile sewage spills have plagued the Tampa Bay area this year, including 600,000 gallons of sewage into the Hillsborough River in January.

The magnitude of early reported environmental impacts during Idalia, at least for now, appears to be far less than Hurricane Ian’s landfall in Southwest Florida last year. That storm dumped at least 17 million gallons of dirty wastewater into Manatee County waterways alone, pollution reports showed. Tampa area waters saw more than 300,000 gallons of wastewater spills during Ian.

Still, it could take months for the full scope of Idalia’s environmental toll to come to light.

The largest wastewater spill reported so farrelated to Hurricane Idalia was in Punta Gorda, an area hit hard by Hurricane Ian last year. On Sept. 1, it was reported to the state that Idalia’s rainfall caused hydraulics at the city’s Pelican Harbor wastewater treatment plant to fail completely.

Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 gallons of wastewater spilled due to the malfunction. The wastewater then flowed into the area surrounding the plant and into a pipe that empties into the Peace River. The river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

The report sent to the state said that the area around the plant, along with a section of the Peace River, will be tested for E. coli and other harmful bacteria. An update had not been provided by the time of publication.

Another estimated 6,000 gallons spilled in Punta Gorda when a sewer line ruptured while the area was underwater due to flooding from Idalia, according to the report.

In Crystal River in Citrus County, the sewer station was overrun with floodwaters. According to areport, staff watched as water from the gulf entered the facilityand mixed with sewage until the storm surge receded. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of sewage escaped during the event.

In Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, an estimated 2,500 gallons of sewage spilled near Piney Z Lake after Idalia caused a power outage at a wastewater pumping station.

On the same day, a Clearwater wastewater station on Harbor Drive near the Gulf of Mexico was inundated with floodwater and leaked sewage. A representative for the city said it was impossible to know exactly how much was released but didn’t believe it was a large amount because so many people were already evacuated from the area and so less sewage was being created.

In Fort Meade, south of Lakeland, water froma reclaimed mining site leaked due to Idalia flooding. A representative of Mosaic, the company that owns the site, said the spill was around 1,000 gallons.

In Charlotte County, 2,400gallons of raw wastewater spilled, but the county says all of the water that was spilled was recovered because it was in a contained area.

In Pinellas County, early reports show sinking boats likely dumped diesel and oil into area waterways, includingin Boca Ciega Bay and even inside Tampa Bay itself. In one instance, a boat owner alerted the U.S. Coast Guard onAug. 30 that his boat was pushed against a seawall in Boca Ciega Bay during the storm, and that 15 gallons of diesel and motor oil were spilling into the water, causing a rainbow sheen to emerge around the vessel.

That same day, a caller alerted the Coast Guard that a derelict personal watercraft was floating in Tampa Bay, with a sheen of oil veiling the watercraft. The incident is being attributed to Hurricane Idalia, according to pollution reports filed to the federal National Response Center, a pollution reporting call center.

Idalia’s floodwaters caused up to 20 gallons of kerosene to leak from an underground tank at Crosswinds mobile home park in St. Petersburg, sending the hazardous fuel down the park’s street and around roughly 10 mobile homes, according to Jim Millican, division chief of the Lealman Fire District.

When Lealman fire crews arrived on the scene the morning of Aug. 30, they built a dam around the spill to prevent it from spreading, Millicansaid.

“We diked and dammed it so that it couldn’t travel any further and it couldn’t make it into the storm sewer system,” Millican said. The Lealman Fire District consulted with Pinellas County about a hazardous material response, and the remainder of the cleanup was left in the hands of the trailer park’s management group.

To the north, in Tarpon Springs, a caller to the National Response Center reported that when Idalia’s floodwaters receded, diesel oil covered the ground near a canal bordering St. Joseph Sound. The person who reported the pollution suspected it likely stemmed from a sunken barge, according to an initial pollution report.

Once the storm passed and the surge receded, more evidence of spills began to appear. On Aug. 31, a caller to the federal response center said a boat was caught underneath a dock in the Manatee River. The vessel had taken on water during the storm, and there was a sheen of oil around where it now rested, according to a pollution notice.

In Horseshoe Beach, near where Idalia made landfall, aerial drone imagery from Tampa Bay Times reporters showed displaced vehicles spewing gasoline into neighborhood canals. Smaller-scale spills like these are hard to identify in the wake of a storm, and will typically go unreported to state and federal environment regulators.

Source : Tampa Bay Times


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