Sewage stops spilling into Ocmulgee River

After a week of contaminating the Ocmulgee River, three major sewage spills ended in the early hours of Thursday morning, according to the Macon Water Authority.

The spills, which by authority estimates totaled about 35 million gallons, were caused when the authority shut down a pump station that normally pushes sewage underneath the river toward the Lower Poplar sewage treatment plant. That action became necessary last week after heavy rains and a corroded sewer pipe caused a sinkhole at the foot of Macon’s levee, jeopardizing the earthen berm around part of the city.

Authority and local public works employees worked frantically to sandbag the sinkhole, and a contractor started the next day setting up above-ground bypass pipes so sewage could flow without traveling through the broken pipe.

That effort was finished at 2 a.m. Thursday, allowing the authority to start pumping again and end the spills around sunrise, said Tony Rojas, the authority’s executive director.

The bypass is a short-term fix as the authority replaces the corroded pipe, and residents are asked to avoid the sinkhole area while that work continues.

Rojas said employee crews began early Thursday morning cleaning up from the sewage spills, which were all in public recreation areas. Two were on the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail and one was in the Ocmulgee National Monument.

At the Spring Street boat ramp, sewage was leaking from the top of the concrete slab and shooting up at the bottom. Mike Ford, CEO of NewTown Macon, said his agency will consult with the state Department of Natural Resources about whether the spill has eroded soil beneath the boat ramp and made it unstable. He said the ramp was built at a bad angle and needs replacing anyway.

When the sinkhole was first found, authority officials installed a cap over the growing hole in the pipe but thought the levee was in no danger as they kept the river out, Rojas said.

But as the day wore on, groundwater began to fill the sinkhole, causing more and more dirt to crumble in.

When the authority briefly turned on the pumps at the Main Street lift station in the middle of the night, groundwater and dirt in the hole started getting sucked into the pipe and the sandbags were shifting, Rojas said.

“I was scared to death,” Rojas said. “It was like this: ‘I’ve never flooded a city before. I don’t want to start tonight.’ ”

A representative from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stayed at the levee all night Wednesday, Rojas said.

The corps is responsible for certifying the reliability of the levee, although the city and county are responsible for maintaining it.

The corps did not direct decisions but concurred that the authority had to continue whatever it could to keep water off the levee, said Billy Birdwell, public information director for the corps’ Savannah district.

Seven days of authority river testing have shown elevated, but not dramatic, bacteria levels downstream of the spill: 186 fecal coliforms per 100 milliliters upstream, compared with 380 downstream, according to data provided by Mark Wyzalek, the authority’s environmental compliance manager.

But some residents have expressed outrage in e-mails to the corps, state Environmental Protection Division and congressional representatives.

Altamaha Riverkeeper James Holland wrote in an e-mail that he is very concerned about the amount of nutrients the sewage injected into the river.

“These nutrients can travel hundreds of miles before doing their damage,” he wrote. “In other words, it is possible for this much sewage to cause harm to the Altamaha River estuary.”

Others have been angry that local health departments have issued no warnings to downstream river users.

The North Central Health District has met with Wyzalek and reviewed his test results, said David Blankenship, the district environmental health director.

He acknowledged that the risk of spending time at the river is greater this week than before the spills, but he said there is limited access to the river downstream.

He said people shouldn’t swim in the river at any time.

The Macon spills are not the largest in the state resulting from heavy rains last week, said Tim Cash, the EPD assistant chief for watershed protection.

“There’s considerably more than that gone into the Chattahoochee River in metro Atlanta,” he said.

About six sewage treatment plants in the Atlanta area failed.

The large Clayton plant, owned by the city of Atlanta, is not expected to be operational again until the weekend, and Douglas County has eight lift stations inoperable, Cash said.

He estimated that the Clayton plant alone might have dumped 200 million gallons of sewage into the river during just the first few days after the deluge.

Cash called the rainfall “catastrophic” and said it’s unlikely that the EPD will fine utilities for sewage spills that resulted unless they didn’t make a good-faith effort to restore operations.

“There’s precedent for not penalizing people during extreme events,” he said.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.