Spill angers residents: People voice sewage concerns at meeting

Florida officials from Madison, Hamilton and Suwannee counties attended the task force workshop and relayed frustrations over communication with Valdosta.

LIVE OAK — It’s not just a river to Don Hale.

Rather, the Suwannee River is his life in a lot of ways.

“I grew up on the Suwannee,” said Hale, a member of the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners and a member on the Middle and Lower Suwannee River and Withlacoochee River Task Force, whose grandfather served as a park ranger in the Suwannee River State Park. “That really is our life. It always has been.”

That close relationship with the river — one that isn’t unique to him — is what has made Hale so concerned and, at times, mad about the ongoing wastewater spills from Valdosta, Georgia.

Those concerns were amplified by the latest spill — a 7.5 million gallon spill in December that went undetected for several days following human error.

But also adding to the concern and angering Hale was the South Georgia city’s response.

In the notification that Valdosta sent to members of the Task Force as well as the Florida Department of Health, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and Suwannee River Water Management District, Hale said it was described as occurring in a heavily wooded area. Nowhere in that initial information was it mentioned that Sugar Creek was affected, which in turn affects the Withlacoochee River and, in time, the Suwannee River.

“The email they sent didn’t have all the information in it and that really did aggravate me,” he said.

“We are putting the pressure on them from every direction that we know how. We’re doing all we can do. Every time they’ll listen to us, we’re there. Any meeting they’ll give us, we go.”

But there is only so much the Task Force or the North Florida counties and municipalities can do.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division told the Valdosta Daily Times in December it will take punitive action against the city, but those actions have yet to be decided. The Georgia EPD has not fined Valdosta for any of its previous wastewater spills.

Hale said representatives from U.S. Senators Rick Scott and Marco Rubio as well as members of State Rep. Chuck Brannan and State Sen. Rob Bradley’s staffs have attended the Task Force meetings.

State Sen. Bill Montford hosted another meeting last week in Madison on the issue, one that wasn’t attended by any Georgia officials despite invitations.

“Everybody is involved,” Hale said, adding concerned North Florida residents should reach out to their Congressmen and state legislators about the issue. “It’s just one of those things where we’re just going to keep yelling until we get loud enough that we get somebody’s attention.

“Hopefully (the state legislators) will take this back to the powers that be in Florida and get some momentum behind this and get something going.”

Jamie Wachter is the editor of the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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