As of Thursday afternoon, excess water from Hurricane Ian had caused at least a dozen Florida wastewater treatment facilities to discharge raw or partially treated waste, which can contain bacteria or other disease-causing organisms, as well as high levels of nitrogen and phosphates. according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Now, as the storm heads toward South Carolina, attention is turning to sites that could be at risk.
Charleston, which is in the projected path of the storm, has a number of low-lying industrial facilities adjacent to waterways, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. Those sites include a plastic pellet operation, a paper mill, concrete and asphalt plants, and scrap metal facilities.
South Carolina doesn’t require such facilities to submit stormwater data or plans to the state, said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the law center, so it’s hard to know how prepared they are. “We have no idea if they’re meeting their normal storm requirements,” he said. “When a big storm like this comes, we are very concerned that the facilities are not ready.”
Scientists say storms like Ian are becoming more powerful and unpredictable due to climate change.
Further inland, the state is home to hundreds of farms, including poultry and other operations.
Blakely Hildebrand, a senior attorney with the legal center, raised concerns that high rainfall could cause bird manure, often kept in open pits, to spill into waterways.
In 2018, flooding and heavy rains from Hurricane Florence caused industrial sites in the Carolinas to overflow. More than a hundred manure lagoons were flooded, releasing nutrient-rich pig waste, which can contribute to algae blooms, into the environment.
Although several sewage treatment sites in Florida have reported the discharge of waste, it could be days, weeks or even years before there is a full assessment of the damage, said Erik Olson, senior director of health and food for the Defense Council. of Natural Resources. “Until people take soil samples, you don’t know what the damage might be,” he said.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there were over 600 hazardous material spills, in locations including various Superfund sites and sewage treatment plants. Two years after Katrina, soil samples taken by the NRDC found elevated arsenic levels in playgrounds.
Another reason the extent of the damage may be difficult to immediately discern is because of the many smaller types of infrastructure, such as home septic tanks, that are not monitored by the state.
And farms, golf courses, and municipal parks sometimes use large amounts of fertilizer, which can wash into rivers and streams, especially after heavy rains and floods.
The state doesn’t control runoff in those places, said Catherine Kling, an environmental economist at Cornell University who has worked on water quality with the Environmental Protection Agency. “These are everywhere, and a small leak from many of them can have a huge impact on the environment,” she said.
Phosphates and nitrogen, commonly found in high concentrations in fertilizers and wastewater, represent the largest water quality problem in the United States.
Marine ecosystems in Florida have been particularly degraded by such runoff in recent decades. Last year, more than 1,000 manatees died in Florida, part of a record die-off that has been linked to pollution and algae blooms.
Before the storm made landfall in Florida, environmental groups had raised concerns about open-air sewage ponds associated with Florida’s phosphate mining operations. Florida produces most of the country’s phosphate, a key component of fertilizers, in a region east of Tampa called Bone Valley.
The pools at those phosphate sites can contain hundreds of millions and, in some cases, billions of gallons of wastewater containing radon, uranium, radium and other carcinogens, said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Concerns focused on Piney Point, a phosphate plant that is in the process of closing, and a pond in Mosaic-New Wales, a phosphate manufacturing site. Representatives of both operations confirmed on Thursday that they had not detected any violations.