After 2.5 million gallons of wastewater leaked into a branch of the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake on Friday, health officials say all there is to do is wait.
At least when it comes to recreational activities on the water.
The leak caused levels of the bacteria enterococcus at two sampling sites in the advisory area to increase by as much as 2,200% by Tuesday, according to data provided by Hampton Roads Sanitation District, though samples from other sites have shown a vast reduction in the levels of wastewater over that time.
“Because of the volume and because it’s going directly into the waterway, there’s no real way that we’d be able to clean the water necessarily,” said Julie Laferriere, water compliance manager for the Tidewater office of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “What we’re looking to do is let it naturally attenuate, which means wind, wave, rain, tide action — anything that would allow that water to dissipate in the water column, that’s what we’re hoping for and what we’re monitoring for, waiting to see those bacterial numbers drop.”
The change in the levels of contamination tracks with the expected behavior of the water, which is relatively stagnant in the area near the Great Bridge Lock, said Cynthia Jackson, environmental health manager for the Chesapeake Health Department.
“When gates are closed for the lock that water just sits there, and it’s not until there’s boats going through do they open and there’s an exchange (between normal water and contaminated water),” Jackson said. “That increase … is most likely from the wind that we’ve had since the beginning of this and the tidal action. All these numbers should start dropping as time goes, it just takes time.”
Health officials have been testing for enterococcus, fecal coliform and HF183, though enterococcus is the best indicator of contamination by human waste matter, according to Jackson. As of Thursday afternoon, the Chesapeake Health Department has not determined what level of wastewater would be safe enough to lift the health advisory for the area.
The highest level of contamination was recorded on Saturday at the sampling site just west of the leak — along Locks Road — where HRSD staff found 12,300 MPN/100mL, a unit of measurement that refers to the “most probable number” of coliform-group organisms in 100 mL of water. By Tuesday, this test site only showed 397 MPN/100mL, a reduction of about 3,100%. The closest sampling site on the east side of the leak dropped from 3,050 MPN/100mL on Saturday to 254 on Tuesday, a reduction of 1,200%.
The sampling sites that showed an increase in waste matter over the course of the week were those furthest from the site. Samples from the north side of Great Bridge Lock Park increased from 41 MPN/100mL on Saturday to 206 on Tuesday, a 500% increase. Samples from the water near the end of Luther Street showed an increase from 104 MPN/100mL to 2,290, a 2,200% increase.
A tugboat known as “Miss Judy” was moving a dredge owned by Norfolk Dredging through the canal on the Intracoastal Waterway at about 1 p.m. Friday when the tugboat radioed the bridge operator that one of the dredge’s spuds — a large stake used as an anchor — was “stuck on something,” according to an incident report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Chesapeake city staff reported the damage to HRSD at 5:48 p.m. Friday, and crews diverted the flow away from the damaged pipe by 8 p.m.
Signage along the waterway and on digital navigation maps tells boats not to drop anchor or dredge in the area around the wastewater pipe, according to HRSD spokesperson Leila Rice.
It’s unclear how the dredge’s spud snagged the pipe. Attempts to reach Norfolk Dredging for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
It’s also unclear how long repairs will take. No one was injured as a result of the damage, and the smell of sewage was gone by Monday, health officials said.
This week, the United States Coast Guard sent an investigator who will continue to gather information to determine whether any party is at fault, according to USCG spokesperson Jonathan Lally.
Laferrier said DEQ can take disciplinary action for discharge without a permit, but the investigation process is very slow.
The leak occurred as rowers practiced with the Great Bridge Crew Club, which has practiced on this stretch of water for years and whose boathouse is a few thousand feet from the damage, according to club president, Meredith Hodge. Hodge said the club, which includes students from Great Bridge, Grassfield and Hickory high schools, were on the water as crews were working to stop the flow of wastewater Friday afternoon — but no one informed them about the risk of being in the water.
The rowers returned to practice on Saturday, in preparation for their first competition of the spring season on March 25, and still had not been told of any risks, Hodge said. It wasn’t until they read a news article Saturday evening that they learned of the leak. Hodge has since barred the students from getting on the water until the Chesapeake Health Department lifts the health advisory.
None of the rowers has reported any skin irritation, illness, or gastrointestinal issues.
“We pride ourselves on being competitive but if we’re not able to get out and row because a negligent tug, who should know not to have their anchor dropped, ruptures an underwater sewage line — it’s just really been a crappy week,” Hodge said, pun not intended.
She explained that the rowers’ potential exposure to the water is high. They can get soaked rowing, normally depending on where they’re seated in the boat, they dump water on themselves when lifting the boat above their heads, and it’s not uncommon for smaller boats to flip over entirely.
Additionally, this early in the season, Hodge said the rowers have blisters and open cuts all over their hands — which would put them at risk of infection. Hodge has been in regular contact with city and health officials to determine when the rowers can return to the water.
“I’m extremely frustrated personally with the lack of accountability for who’s doing what and there were so many ways that this could’ve been handled better,” she said.
Gavin Stone, 757-712-4806, firstname.lastname@example.org
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