The Metropolitan Sewerage District announced Monday that 374,000 gallons of sewage spilled into the French Broad River in the early morning of Dec. 25. The cause of the spill, says Maintenance Division Director Ken Stines, was a power outage after a transformer was knocked out in high winds around 2 a.m. Friday morning. Additionally, Stines said, the volume of the spill was increased by excessive storm water brought on by snow melt. The official cause on the MSD media notification is “severe natural condition.”
The spill occurred at the MSD Woodfin plant on Riverside Drive and was noticed by workers at 2:45 a.m as sewage flowed from a manhole at the river’s edge. Though power was restored to the station by 3 a.m., it took until 11:30 p.m. to stem the flow, Stines reports. A generator at the station was fired up successfully after the power outage, but did not supply a current to the treatment plant. Stines says the generator was tested on Dec. 6, but that test showed only that the generator would start, not that it would supply a current.
“Unless we put a load on it, we don’t know it isn’t working,” Stines said. “So we were pretty shocked when we saw it wasn’t working.”
The MSD is required to report all spills that flow into bodies of water to the Division of Environmental Health within 48 hours and follow up with a longer report in five days. That second report, Stines says, has not been completed. The division’s surface-water-protection supervisor, Roger Edwards, says his department will evaluate the report, including the environmental factors at play and the response of the crew on the scene, but would not speculate on whether a fine would be imposed.
In cases of spills over 15,000 gallons, the MSD is also required to publish an ad in a local newspaper within 10 days informing the public of the incident.
Stines says the large amount of storm runoff and the river’s high levels should also have significantly diluted the sewage so that it does not pose a serious health or environmental threat.
“In wet-weather conditions, I would be surprised if it has any effect at all. It’s such a small percentage of the volume of the overall river, the it really won’t affect it a lot,” he said. “A spill that size at the head of a little stream would be significant.”
— Brian Postelle, staff writer