Although Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson hinted last week that road crews basically encountered a sewage leak because it was linked to pollution at Bruce Beach, utility officials argue that wasn’t the case at all be.
Don Palmer, associate executive director for engineering and environmental resources at the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, and Stacy Hayden, its director of engineering, said the ECUA had been working for months to plug the now-repaired sewer leak on Spring and Garden streets in downtown Pensacola .
ECUA executives said their search for a source of pollution in Bruce Beach began almost immediately after local conservationists released a report in April revealing a steady stream of human waste is entering Bruce Beach’s Pensacola Bay.
Solving problems together:Sewage pollutes the water at Bruce Beach. ECUA, city works together to find source.
Finding the leaking 8-inch main was the culmination of months of work, according to ECUA officials.
“It kind of led us down this path. That report got the ball rolling,” Palmer said. “It made us and the city want to work together on this issue.”
ECUA used dyes to determine whether key downtown buildings such as City Hall, the courthouse, and the federal building were connected to the ECUA sewer system. When those tests revealed no direct sources of pollution, the ECUA turned to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and initiated microbial testing, Hayden and Palmer said. Detergent testing was also conducted, they said.
All of that work, ECUA executives said, resulted in the identification of a “hot spot” near Spring Street and Garden Street “in recent weeks.” City crews were deployed to conduct a video inspection of the area, and armed with footage from that inspection, ECUA discovered what was described as minor cracks in the 8-inch sewer line that runs under the roadway.
The vitrified pipe sewer line has likely been in the ground since the ’50s or ’60s, Bowers said. Pensacola’s sewage system is among the oldest in ECUA’s service area, executives said.
In 1996, a large stormwater box culvert was built around the sewer pipe by the Florida Department of Transportation. The culvert diverts stormwater not only into a city system that empties into Washerwoman Creek and Bruce Bayou, but also into an FDOT system with an outflow east of Maritime Park.
As soon as cracks appeared in the sewer line, raw sewage began leaking into both stormwater drainage systems.
Utility workers excavating the Spring Street sewer pipe found cracks not only in the sewer but also in the surrounding culvert, Palmer and Hayden said.
“We found a damaged sewer line and a damaged stormwater line,” Bowers said.
There were also signs of leakage from the cracked storm culvert into the ground, ECUA officials said, which may have been responsible for the erosion that caused the overlying roadway to subside.
“Eventually, we think her whistle died down,” Hayden said. “This caused a rupture between our pipe and their pipe.”
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After the sewer line was dug up, the crack in that line was found to be minor, Bowers said.
However, it is not known how long the pipe was leaking.
At a news conference on Oct. 17, Robinson reported that roadworks to support “gaps” forming under Garden Street near its intersection with Spring Street had led to the unexpected discovery of a hole in a sewer pipe beneath the street.
“It sure seems like a big problem that we didn’t know was out there,” Robinson told the press conference audience.
He clarified Monday that the gaps he was referring to at his press conference were potholes discovered by city crews.
“We reported potholes to the DOT. Usually with potholes there’s a problem under the road and you have one of two things, rainwater or sewage,” he said.
“From our point of view, we’re just really happy it got resolved,” he said. “We were very happy about that. We didn’t care how it happened. We found a root cause of a problem we had.”
Repairing the leak will not solve the pollution problems
City of Pensacola spokeswoman Kaycee Lagarde referred all questions about the fate of the stormwater culvert to FDOT. The mayor insisted that the city not get involved in projects run by either DOT or ECUA.
Robinson said at his press conference that the discovery of the sewage leak on Spring and Garden streets could go a long way toward solving the pollution problems at Bruce Beach, where the city is working on building a $6.9 million park on Pensacola Bay has begun.
This blanket conclusion has been challenged by, among others, Barbara Albrecht, a biologist involved in the 2021-22 study that led to the ongoing tests for sources of pollution in the city’s stormwater system.
The studies showed high levels of Ecoli bacteria in “virtually every outflow leading to the bay,” Albrecht said, and after Robinson’s press conference, she questioned whether local officials were paying enough attention to local scientists.
On Monday, Robinson reiterated that he never claimed that finding the leak would solve all the problems at Bruce Beach and Pensacola Bay.
“I never said this discovery solved everything, we say this is a major source of pollution,” he said. “I never pretended to say that any of this would be done because of what we found on Garden Street. I never said it was all and that’s why we need to continue the stormwater and sewage testing.”
Christian Wagley, who has been appointed to deal with environmental issues as part of incoming Mayor DC Reeves’ transition team, said the new government is committed to working closely with local environmentalists and has already arranged a meeting with Albrecht to discuss the Discuss results in detail of their last studies.
In addition, the transition team is developing a report on stormwater runoff that includes a recommendation to include microbial source tracking in future testing, he said. Microbial testing allows officers to measure the level of fecal contamination and identify the source of the contamination.
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Wagley said DEP has begun participating in testing in Pensacola with the city and ECUA. He said so far, much of the recent sampling indicates that birds are a major source of fecal contamination in rainwater.
Palmer and Hayden said the effort to locate a source of raw sewage leaking into Pensacola’s stormwater system underscores the success of the collaboration initiated by the city and ECUA last year. The tests will continue in the foreseeable future.
ECUA executives said the utility has “an excellent working relationship” with the city and expects to continue to do so after the Reeves administration takes over.
“We anticipate a continued healthy relationship,” Bowers said.
Wagley said the city and ECUA have plans to retest the leak-affected gully area on Spring and Garden streets on November 3 “to see if, or to what extent, the recent repair on Garden St. has addressed the problem resolved”.