The amount of sewage that poured from a pressurized pipe into the Indian River Lagoon was more than 30 times greater than first estimated, totaling more than 3 million gallons, according to the City of Vero Beach and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
As first reported by Vero Beach 32963 last week, a 12-inch sewer main that carries waste water from most of Indian River Shores and a number of Vero neighborhoods to the city sewage treatment plant ruptured near Jaycee Park at the spot where it intersects a major storm water drain that empties into the lagoon.
The spill came to light on Thursday, Nov. 16 when residents complained of a foul odor along Bethel Creek, an inlet that connects to the lagoon near the city marina north of the 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.
At that time, he estimated 100,000 gallons of sewage had spewed into the lagoon, but after checking flow records at the sewage plant he upped the estimate to 3.1 million gallons, making it the fourth largest spill along the lagoon since 2015, according to records provided by DEP.
A repair crew of city employees and contract workers hired to help with the emergency managed to enclose the ruptured pipe in a sleeve that Bolton says is working well to keep most of the sewage in the pipe.
Bolton and his team are now trying to figure out the best way to enact a permanent repair.
It is a challenging task. The corroded cast iron pipe, which Bolton says is more than 50 years old, continues to carry sewage from thousands of households and the repair site is wedged tightly between Highway A1A and a massive retaining wall.
He said the cause of the break, which will cost between $25,000 and $50,000 to repair, has not been determined but is likely related to recent construction work in the area.
“It seems like the pipe cracked the previous weekend and was leaking for several days, but then on Wednesday something happened that blew a hole in the bottom of the main.
“About 600,000 gallons leaked Sunday through Tuesday and then most of the spill occurred on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, prior to the repair,” Bolton said.
The spill will do ecological harm to the already beleaguered lagoon. The extent of the harm is not yet known but the problem is made worse because Bethel Creek has little natural flow, which means contamination will be slow to disburse.
The Water and Sewer Department and State Health Department are testing the water in the lagoon at five sites in and near Bethel Creek and have found high but varying levels of toxic bacteria.
Bolton said the water in Bethel Creek is so contaminated that residents are being warned not just to stay out of the water but to thoroughly wash their hands if they touch the water while fishing or boating.
“It seems to get better one day and then worse then next,” Bolton said. “We may need to bring in aerators or pumps to try and disperse the pollution or make the waste break down faster. We may pull in marine scientists from Harbor Branch to consult on the best way to clean up the creek.”