ALBANY — As late as Thursday afternoon, the stench of raw sewage was pungent along the murky banks of the Flint River just south of the Oglethorpe Bridge after more than 90,000 gallons of untreated waste spilled into the city’s founding waterway on Sunday with a second spill occurring on Monday.
A city press release went out Tuesday, but it referenced only the Sunday spill.
“Sunday afternoon, May 20, 2018, the city of Albany had a sanitary sewer overflow into the east bank of the Flint River just south of the Oglethorpe Boulevard Bridge crossing due to equipment failures at a lift station,” the city of Albany press release announced Tuesday. “Approximately 90,000 gallons of sewage is estimated to have spilled into the river. Crews from Albany Utility were on the scene quickly and took steps to mitigate the overflow.”
According to the press release, as required by the city’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit, “the city of Albany has collected water quality samples upstream and downstream of the overflow location for analysis and has provided the appropriate notification to the Environmental Health Department. Public Notices are posted in the area.”
The Albany Herald found no such notices on either the east or west bank of the river Thursday afternoon advising citizens of the recent spill.
There were, however, several citizens in the area, including a middle-aged man carrying a yellow five-gallon bucket who wandered knee deep along the bank in the spill zone, where he collected fresh-water mussels. Two younger men several hundred yards downstream were actively fishing.
Repairs were still underway Thursday at pump station LS-26, located just north of Albany State University along the east bank of the river, where the spill originated.
Albany Sewer Systems Superintendent Jeff Hughes was on the scene and explained what happened.
“We had some pump failures,” Hughes said. “Until we could get something else going, we had some overflow into the river. We have set up a bypass and have stuff diverted on the other side of the river that normally comes through here.”
Hughes explained that two separate spills occurred.
“We actually had two,” he said. “Sunday, we estimate about 90,000 gallons. We got another pump going and it failed, so we had some Monday. And I haven’t calculated how much that is yet.”
Hughes confirmed that the spills were “raw, untreated, sewage,” and he was asked what cleanup /mitigation measures the city had planned to protect the natural resources that have proven to be so crucial to downtown’s revitalization.
“Well, we will clean up whatever is on the banks,” Hughes said. “But what’s in the river, it’s an effluent, and we are looking at about 500 gallons per minute, which even though the river is pretty low, that’s only about a tenth of 1 percent of the flow of the river.”
The Flint Riverkeeper in Albany released a statement this week condemning the city’s handling of the sewage issue.
“The most recent sewage spill in downtown Albany is but one of many, large and small,” Flint Riverkeeper Executive Director Gordon Rogers wrote. “In fact, the city of Albany has a permit that allows a certain level of discharge every time it rains more than a fraction of an inch. Not to be confused with the larger spills, such as the one that occurred over the weekend, all of these discharges, large and small, permitted and unpermitted, endanger the Flint and those that swim, snorkel, dive, paddle and fish it.
“The city of Albany is responsible for the spills, for reporting them and for achieving a remedy. The city should work to exceed expectations. The public should be notified immediately of any spill through local and social media. And the city should immediately address the engineering and construction tasks by allocating sufficient funds and pushing contracts forward that will solve the problems. Immediately.”
Rogers went on to say, “Flint Riverkeeper is not responsible for engineering and construction; but we are, along with our members and the entire public, responsible for holding our government accountable.”
The two spills that occurred this week came a mere two months after a broken pipe released thousands of gallons of sewage into the Flint near Turner Golf Course back in March.
According to Hughes, in March, crews from Albany Utilities took similar steps to mitigate the overflow until the pipeline could be repaired. He said that no drinking water systems were impacted.
Citizens were, however, advised to avoid contact with water in the reservoir in the vicinity of Turner Golf Course for three weeks after the incident.
“We have been meeting with mid-level city officials on these issues for two years,” Rogers said. “We understand the problems. So do they. It is time for higher-level, elected, officials to listen to their expert staff and the public. Now. Failure is not an option. Flint Riverkeeper will pursue this to successful conclusion. Our record proves the validity of such a statement. You can count on us.”
In January, the city of Albany was awarded millions in federally supported loans to rehabilitate Albany’s failing sewer systems.
City officials told The Albany Herald in January, that the $15.9 million loan was designed to fund improvements of water, sewer and filtration systems, which would prevent line failures of the reinforced concrete sewer pipe that could result in spills into the Flint River. But it was not until Tuesday night that City Manager Sharon Subadan announced, during the City Commission’s regular meeting, that the city was receiving bids for sewer improvement projects.
For more information on sewer issues, contact Hughes at (229) 883-6950.