VALDOSTA, Ga. — More than 7.5 million gallons of sewage overflowed from a manhole next to Sugar Creek.
The manhole, located adjacent to 1800 Norman Drive behind Target, overflowed for four and a half days before city employees noticed. City workers have been cleaning and disinfecting the area since Monday afternoon. Sugar Creek feeds into the Withlacoochee River.
The overflow was caused by a contractor from Electric Machine Control, Inc. who forgot to reconnect a cable, which caused sensors to fail and pumps not to restart at the Remerton lift station, said Darryl Muse, Valdosta director of utilities.
The lift station pumps sewage out to the Withlacoochee Wastewater Treatment Plant, and the station failed to operate as a result of the disconnected electrical connection, Muse said. The problem was identified by staff at the wastewater treatment facility after they noticed decreased flows coming into the plant.
"The station typically would notify us, but that particular plug that was disconnected was the piece of data that the system needed to transmit to us to allow us to respond quickly," Muse said.
The contractor was working on the system that provides alarms and early notices of malfunctions and after taking an electrical measurement, forgot to reconnect the cable, Muse said.
"If the cable had been reconnected as it should have been, then the pumps would have operated properly, and we would not have had that release," Muse said.
Electric Machine Control, Inc. admitted to city officials it was one of their employees who forgot to reconnect the plug, but the city was still waiting for the contractor's official response Tuesday afternoon.
"The irony of it is the guy working on that doing what it's not supposed to do, he made it do it," said Mark Barber, Valdosta city manager.
The last three sewage overflows have resulted from outside function, whereas this one is a system malfunction because of human error, Barber said.
"We don't care if it's 100 gallons or seven million gallons, any amount for us is inappropriate," Barber said.
A fine from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division is possible.
Marzieh Shahbazaz, a municipal compliance manager at the Georgia EPD, confirmed there will be an enforcement action after the five-day period where information will be collected. Georgia EPD and the city will have discussions to determine the course of action, according to Shahbazaz.
“Obviously it’s a violation,” Shahbazaz said. “This is a huge spill.”
Valdosta residents should not be concerned over their drinking water as surface water is not used and it comes from wells right above the Florida aquifer which is miles north of Sugar Creek, Muse said.
Courtney Sheeley, Department of Health public information officer, advised no one should go into the water affected for the time being.
"(Residents) need to stay out of the area until everything is contained and has been resolved," Sheeley said.
The Florida Health Department in Hamilton and Madison counties announced a joint health advisory about water quality for their residents Monday.
This is the biggest sewage overflow of 2019 in Valdosta. The city had a series of sewage discharges in December 2018 caused by heavy rains, but none totaled the amount of this spill.
“December’s just not our month,” Barber said.