EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a series covering the latest City of Valdosta sewage spill
By Robin Postell
VALDOSTA, Ga. – Those gathered at the Valdosta City Hall Annex Tuesday, Jan. 8 wanted answers. They had questions. They asked about oversight. Accountability. Financial responsibility.
Mostly, they wanted to face those who they feel are responsible for the latest record-breaking City of Valdosta 7.5 million-gallon sewage spill that was released in early December 2019. The spill has caused positive testing for E. coli and Fecal Coliform. This has prevented people from fishing, swimming, or having contact with commonly used waterways.
Dozens of concerned, angry and agitated citizens were focused on the officials there to give them what they wanted.
Officials in attendance were from the City of Valdosta and Lowndes County.
Government leaders were also there as concerned citizens from a specially-formed task force from North Florida Hamilton and Madison Counties to address the City of Valdosta. John S. Quarterman was in attendance as the representative of WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc., which has been doing spot testing at various points since the spill.
Valdosta Utilities Director Darryl Muse opened the meeting by explaining how the spill occurred, attributing the “release” to a contractor from a Trussville, Alabama company Electric Machine Control (EMC) who was working on the Remar Station located in Remerton. He added that two employees had been fired due to the spill.
Although Mayor-Elect Scott James Matheson would not be sworn in until Thursday night, he presided over the meeting along with Valdosta City Manager Mark Barber.
“I have one vice in life,” Mayor Matheson began. “And you can ask my wife. It is kayaks. I buy too many of them…I’ve spent most of my kayaking hours on the Suwannee River.”
Coming into his position as Valdosta’s newest Mayor with the largest-to-date sewage spill to deal with, he did not shy away from the responsibility he could’ve put off one more day.
After Muse finished explaining the basic information about the cause of the spill, concerned citizens and members of the Suwannee River Task Force, all from north Florida, began speaking and asking questions. They wanted to know more details, and Muse attempted to provide specifics as requested regarding the location of the spills. Citizens also wanted to know why they had not been notified, and why the Florida Department of Health had issued advisories, but not the Georgia Department of Public Health.
When asked if the city was mandated to pay fines for the spills, Barber said no, and added that the EPD had not recommended that the City of Valdosta release public information about the spills.
“We are getting it from every angle,” Barber said in frustration.
“Why aren’t the manholes monitored?” one citizen asked, to which Muse replied there were 4,000-5,000 manholes and there simply wasn’t enough manpower to accomplish that on a daily basis.
The public asked how the City of Valdosta intended to handle potential financial claims. City Manager Barber said, “We take full responsibility for the spill,” but added they did not take full “financial responsibility,” due to the Alabama company EMC’s liability. Various citizens groaned and raised their voices when asking Barber to give more information about how to file claims, since many in North Florida communities are spending hundreds if not thousands on bottled drinking water, and distilled gallons of water for bathing, testing, and other related expenses.
Madison County Commissioner Rick Davis, a member of the Task Force of 12 Florida counties formed to work with the City of Valdosta, was also openly concerned about the lack of response to the sewage spill, which took four days to detect. Davis is concerned about the health of his Madison County citizens.
Denise Shirey, a global trade compliance professional who travels frequently for her career, lives two blocks from the Jasper Boat Ramp in Florida. Shirey, who sat with other Jasper residents who live in the “campground” area, was consistently vocal throughout the meeting.
Shirey stood up and pulled up her skirt to reveal sore-covered calves, which were also on her arms and chest. “I’ve been to a dermatologist but they don’t know what it is or how to treat it,” Shirey told Valdosta Today. She cannot prove it has anything to do with the City of Valdosta’s sewage spills, but she developed them after moving to Hamilton County, Florida in 2014.
“I’m two miles closer with my own well,” Shirey added. “I’m the largest landowner in the area and sewage is still coming our way. We don’t know when we will have clean wells.”
Another Jasper resident, Jason Valinsky and his wife Debbie live “right on the water,” and had their well tested professionally. “The man who tested it actually called me,” Valinsky said. “Told me not to go near that water because it tested positive for E. coli. Told me to pour Clorox down the well and rested for E. Coli. Our wells are only 85 feet down and this is eventually going to get into the aquifer.”
Valinsky pointed out, as did others, that it was hurting Florida tourism. “Europeans who used to come here to vacation? They’re not coming,” he said.
The meeting was nearly two hours long and allowed citizens to ask as many questions as they desired, and the city officials did their best to provide answers but there is still much to be considered.
The full impact of this latest spill will not be clear for some time, depending on how much, or how little, rain the area gets.
WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc., continues to do its own testing and the most recent information from January 8 contained the following:
It would be prudent to avoid contact with the Withlacoochee River from Knights Ferry Boat Ramp all the way to the Suwannee River, due to test results from Lowndes County, Georgia, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. website
According to the WWALS website, it will be doing more sampling.
“We will especially be testing at Troupville Boat Ramp, at the Little River Confluence, and upstream at GA 133 on the Withlacoochee, as well as at US 84, because we would like to know the state of the Withlacoochee River in that area before we paddle with the new Mayor of Valdosta from Troupville to Spook Bridge on Saturday, January 18, 2020.WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. website