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WASTE WATCH: ECUA Sanitary Sewage Overflows
ESCAMBIA COUNTY - The Emerald Coast Utilities Authority is fighting a battle against old infrastructure.
A battle that often results in sewage spilling into our water ways.
Now the ECUA is working under a consent order with the Department of Environmental Protection to try and stem the flow.
Fishing, swimming, skiing lots of people in Escambia County live their lives on the water. It's part of why people choose to live in Florida.
But our water ways are in danger.
It seems like just about everything ends up in these waterways.
Some of it though, could be prevented.
It's not the way it used to be.
Tony Barfield/Boat Captain: "People are scared to go in the water around here. They really are. I mean I don't ever see nobody jumping off, swimming off the pier and stuff around like they should be."
Walt Kinne/Local Fisherman: "We don't fish much close by, just because of the sewage spills and the rain flow, or runoff from all the rain."
SSO's -- or Sanitary Sewage Overflows.
The name doesn't do it justice.
ECUA is averaging more than 80 overflows per year in the last five years -- with a high of 94 in 2009.
The numbers are declining -- but spills still occur.
In 2011 -- more than three million gallons of sewage were spilled -- winding up in our water.
Chips Kirschenfeld/Escambia Co. Water Quality: "Raw sewage washes down the street into our storm water system. That's the primary issue, and the primary problem. But then it's exacerbated by the use of these chemicals, these chlorinated chemicals, to clean up the spill."
27 water bodies in our area are designated as impaired -- failing to meet the requirements for Fecal Coliform Bacteria and Nitrogen.
Tony Barfield makes his living on the water -- he got an up close view of a summer spill in Bayou Grande.
Tony Barfield/Boat Captain
"Ain't no doubt. I mean you could actually see the real stuff floating around on the water. You know you can't hide that. But it was really terrible."
The Department of Environmental Protection is the enforcement agent for these overflows.
ECUA must have a plan to upgrade their system -- and reduce the number of spills.
But that plan is long-term -- and they're also still growing and building the system -- with day-to-day operation issues on top of the consent order.
Shawn Hamilton/DEP: "We reach it you know as a negotiation process. You know we look at the issues. Both sides recognize issues. And you know we agree to a road map to get those resolved."
ECUA's is making improvements.
We can see the new projects in progress -- but you can't see the old, leaky pipes under the ground -- or the overflow at the treatment facility after a major rain.
There are only three reasons DEP will excuse a spill -- rags clogging the system, grease build up, and power loss.
Stephen Sorrell/ECUA Executive Director: "We have very few that are actually system malfunctions because of pipe breaks, there are some, but that's not the biggest part of it."
"We've tried to be more transparent, so we're starting to release more and more information, even though the number of Sanitary Sewer Overflows has been declining over the last several years because of all the work that we've been doing."
ECUA will borrow 100's of millions of dollars for new infrastructure -- spending millions on repairs every year.
And rates have gone up significantly in recent years to cover those improvements.
It's part of the cost of doing business.
Stephen Sorrell/ECUA Executive Director: "The only means the ECUA has to fund that is through the rate structure. You know so we have to pass along rate increases, and be as prudent as we possibly can with the rate payers' money."
Walt Kinne/Local Fisherman: "You cannot be too safe, especially when it gets to our environment. You know, hold the guys to stricter regulations and make them clean it up."
The health of our water ways affects so many people especially those who are out there making a living on it every day.
And while the DEP and the ECUA are working together with this consent agreement. It's the every day guy who is paying the price.
ECUA is asking customers to help prevent some sewage overflows and back-ups.
Their October newsletter describes the problems and includes tips on how to protect your pipes.
You can read it online at weartv.com under Newslinks.