Raw sewage pours into lagoon from major pipe break

At least 100,000 gallons of raw sewage poured into the Indian River Lagoon at Bethel Creek last week after a pressurized sewer main ruptured near Jaycee Park. And the volume may have been much higher than that.

The 12-inch pipe, which carries waste water from Indian River Shores and Vero neighborhoods to the city sewage treatment plant, broke where it intersects a major stormwater drain that empties into the lagoon.

The spill came to light on Thursday when readers contacted Vero Beach 32963 to complain of a foul odor along Bethel Creek, an inlet that connects to the lagoon near the city marina north of the Merrill Barber Bridge.

After a reporter called the city to check on the cause of the smell, Water and Sewer Department chief Rob Bolton investigated and discovered the broken line.

“We are grateful for the call,” Bolton said on Friday. “We found a heck of force-main break that we were unaware of.” He said he did not know how much sewage had been released but estimated it was more than 100,000 gallons.

A repair crew of city employees and contract workers hired to help with the emergency worked all day Friday until after dark, trying to get at and repair the ruptured pipe.

Bolton said work was hampered by an unusually high tide and water table that continually flooded the excavation site along A1A.

He said the cause of the break, which will cost between $25,000 and $50,000 to repair, has not been determined, and he was not sure how long the pipe had been leaking before the rupture was discovered.

“We may be able to figure out when the break occurred by going back and looking at changes to the flow coming into our plant,” Bolton said.

Mike Johannsen, who lives on Bethel Creek Drive on the west side of the creek, said on Friday he “first noticed the disagreeable odor last week,” which means the pipe may have been leaking for more than seven days.

After the break was discovered, the city put out a press release asking island residents north of the Barber Bridge to limit water usage so as to reduce the flow of sewage into the lagoon. On Friday evening city workers distributed flyers to neighborhoods near Bethel Creek to inform residents about the leak and the city’s response.

The spill will do ecological harm to the already beleaguered lagoon. Wastewater carries toxic household chemicals along with human waste loaded with bacteria and nitrogen that feeds the damaging algae blooms that have plagued the waterway in recent years.

The extent of the harm is not yet known. After the leak was discovered, the city notified the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the state Health Department, as required by law. Both agencies had inspectors on site Friday, testing the water and trying to figure out the extent of the contamination, but the test results were not available at press time.

“The department is investigating a wastewater release from a broken force main in Vero Beach,” Jill Margolius, spokesperson for the DEP’s West Palm Beach office, told Vero Beach 32963 on Friday afternoon. “The official spill volume has not been determined yet.

“When responding to a reported spill incident, DEP’s first priority is always to work with utilities to identify any releases and get them stopped. Once all necessary first response activities have been performed, the department then evaluates [the spill] . . .

“If we find there were violations, we hold the facility accountable by identifying necessary restoration and/or remediation actions with the possibility of fines or other penalties for damages as defined by statute and deemed appropriate.”

The spill occurred near the recently completed Surf Club townhouse development and Bolton said it is possible heavy equipment and excavation on that site may have had something to do with the broken sewer main, but that more investigation is needed to know if that is the case.

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