It was all hands on deck last Friday night when Charlotte County Utilities attempted a momentous step adding new equipment in a five-year project to increase sewage capacity for most of the county.
Sometime after work began at 10 p.m., contractors noticed that pressure was building up in the wrong places, so they called off installation of a tie-in assembly. But it was too late. Too much pressure had built up in the system.
At 3:30 a.m. Saturday, the first of a many blowouts occurred, starting with the county’s biggest spill ever. A 20-inch force main blew apart at Loveland Boulevard and Old Landfill Road. Approximately 1 million gallons of sewage spilled onto the ground before the problem was fixed almost 18 hours later. Tanker trucks were already on site for the installation, so they moved to vacuum up 800,000 gallons.
The crisis was not over right away, because too much sewage and pressure remained in the system. At 6 a.m., a sewage lift station overflowed at 19300 Quesada Ave. Around 8 a.m., more than seven manholes started overflowing throughout mid-county. At 11 a.m., another force main broke at 22468 Olean Blvd.
In addition to the initial failure at Loveland and Old Landfill, about 59,000 gallons spilled from manholes and another 50,000 from the lift station and the Olean force main.
County tanker trucks vacuumed up about 43,000 gallons from these secondary spills. About 9,300 gallons spilled into water bodies including Niagara Waterway, Lake Explorer and the Hampton Point Apartment complex pond. Another 15,600 gallons percolated into the soil, which workers washed down with lime.
In all, about 79% of the spill was caught, CCU Director Craid Rudy told The Daily Sun Thursday, and very little made it into waterways.
“It could have been a heck of a lot worse,” he said.
Much of this information was reported in 10 separate incident reports filed Thursday with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Public Notice of Pollution database.
Rudy explained more of what appears to have gone wrong and how the county and contractors handled it.
The problem appears to be with a valve installed years ago, before current CCU employees started here. It was installed as part of decommissioning a section of the main East Port plant, near I-75. Rudy said he doesn’t know if it was before the county was forced to takeover the utility from General Development 30 years ago.
That valve was supposed to be open, and no one knew it was closed or where it was located, because operations were never affected, until Friday, Rudy said.
After the tie-in assembly install was aborted Friday, the county and SOS Septic spent at least 18 hours hours running 12 trucks to and from lift stations all over the central part of the county. The only complaints CCU has gotten from this blow out, Rudy said, was from people wondering why trucks were running through their neighborhood at all hours.
These trucks were ferrying sewage from lift stations to the main plant, until the problem could be solved. They managed to keep the sewage from overrunning neighborhoods, but sewage did pop out of some manhole covers, into grassy swales and water bodies.
Rudy praised SOS Septic, the county’s emergency contractor, and the engineering contractor, Kiewit Corp.
The break happened in the final phases of a $22 million project begun five years ago that revolves around 3.5 miles of 48-inch pipe that will replace smaller force mains installed decades ago. The county is trying to be prepared for a boom in population plus replace aging infrastructure.
The county is already under a consent decree with DEP for sewage spills that occurred after Hurricane Irma in 2017. The new 48-inch main is part of that consent decree in which the county has agreed to certain projects in lieu of fines.
“It was supposed to be a great achievement,” Rudy said of the big tie in Friday night.
They will try again now next Friday, he said, with extra crews on call.
Through it all, he said, the East Port plant handled the incoming sewage better than expected. It processed the equivalent of 11 million gallons per day at one point, he said, compared to the usual 4 million gallons per day.
The full project should be done before the end of the year, he said.