“There absolutely has to be a regional meeting to discuss what to do about the flooding,” said Fenton Mayor Mike Polizzi. “It’s getting worse. Having both I-44 and I-55 shut down by the flooding is unprecedented. I am hearing that this sewage problem could be with us into April or May.”
by Don Corrigan (published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times)
Warnings about tainted water in the Meramec River from Fenton to Arnold are going unheeded. Boaters have put in the water the past two weekends, despite sewage discharges from a damaged wastewater treatment plant in Fenton.
“We have not made a determination as to when Fenton will be back up and online treating wastewater,” said Sean Hadley, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District (MSD) “It is taking time to triage the plant and figure out what can be fixed or what needs to be replaced.
“We are asking that the public avoid contact with the Meramec River in the area near the Fenton Wastewater Treatment Plant and downstream to the Mississippi,” noted Hadley. “The water that would normally be treated by the Fenton plant is not being treated at this time. We have placed signs in the area warning the public what to do if they do come in contact with the river in this area.”
Historic flooding along the Meramec River in late December submerged the Fenton Plant and the Grand Glaize Wastewater Treatment Plant. Since then, MSD crews and contractors have worked to bring to bring both plants back online as soon as possible.
The Grand Glaze Plant at Valley Park is back online and wastewater at that facility is receiving full treatment once again. However, the Fenton Plant sustained far worse damage and is far from being operational.
“I can’t believe people are out in that water, but I’ve seen them,” said Fenton Mayor Mike Polizzi. “Boats have been on the river and in George Winter Park Lake, which is downstream from the damaged plant. I understand people wanting to have fun, but there are health risks involved.
“I am concerned about the raw sewage and how long this is going to go on,” said Polizzi. “But I do have to say that MSD has been working around the clock on this. It’s troubling to see this stuff being pumped into the river now, though it doesn’t smell bad. Sometimes the plant smells worse when it is actually operating right.”
The Fenton Plant is located within the Meramec’s 100-year floodplain. On Dec. 28, 2015, internal flooding of the plant began from within MSD’s own system, disrupting operations. Forty-eight hours later, flooding from the Meramec itself overwhelmed the plant when floodwaters topped a permanent, MSD-constructed 500-year levee around the plant. At one point, six feet of floodwater covered the entire facility.
The East-West Gateway Council of Government, the Meramec River Tributary Alliance and Meramec River Recreation Association, will meet on Friday, Feb. 26 from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The session will address flooding and discuss its impacts in detail. An agenda and location will be announced.
“There absolutely has to be a regional meeting to discuss what to do about the flooding,” said Polizzi. “It’s getting worse. Having both I-44 and I-55 shut down by the flooding is unprecedented. I am hearing that this sewage problem could be with us into April or May.
“It’s unbelievable the piles of rubble from the Olde Towne flooding that hit Fenton,” added Polizzi. “I don’t think you can blame Valley Park for building a levee, but it hurt us. And that levee was almost topped. What are we looking at in the future?”
The St. Louis area received six to 12 inches of precipitation, with an average of nine inches falling over three days. The Meramec River reached record flood levels at 44.1 feet – eclipsing the level during the Great 1993 Flood. It caused flooding and damage at three MSD treatment plants, including the Grand Glaize and Fenton facilities.
To date, MSD has sustained an estimated $24 million dollars in overall expenses and damages due to the flood event. Part of this larger number includes $16 million for recovery at the three treatment plants damaged.
Residents of the Kirkwood, Fenton and Valley Park area are questioning the wisdom of placing the sewage plants in the floodplain. MSD has responded that most wastewater systems depend on the natural topography of the land.
Gravity moves the wastewater from its source in a home or business down to a wastewater treatment plant. At various points, pumps are required to overcome higher areas of topography. MSD builds wastewater treatment plants in low-lying areas, taking advantage of gravity to move wastewater through its collection system to treatment.
Kathleen Henry of Great Rivers Environmental Law Center in St. Louis said that MSD may have to rethink its locations in flood plains. Climate change, increasing severity of storms with precipitation and more severe flash flooding, may render some sites unuseable in the future.
The Fenton Wastewater Treatment Plant is located near the intersection of South Old Highway 141 and Gravois Road and serves the Fenton area. The plant was built in 1987 in a 100-year floodplain and is surrounded by an MSD-constructed, permanent 500-year levee. In operation, the plant treats about 4.0 million gallons of wastewater per day and is designed to handle up to 6.75 million gallons per day.
“It’s a disturbing situation to know that raw, untreated sewage is entering the Meramec River,” said Henry. “The Meramec has already been listed for Ecoli contamination several times in the recent past.
“Ecoli contamination can make you deathly sick,” added Henry. “And there are other diseases you can get from contact with human feces. We know that people ignore the warning signs when they are posted. I am not sure whether fines for not heeding them are the answer. It might be good to have a water patrol member around to reinforce the message.”
Heather Navarro, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, agreed with Henry.
“One thing I would say about safety in the areas flooded with water mixed with sewage is that these events underscore the need for better water quality monitoring,” said Navarro. “Kiefer Creek, which runs through Castlewood State Park, often has high levels of bacteria after heavy rains, but up until recently no one knew that and people still flocked there to play and swim in the creek.
“You can’t see bacteria in the water, so even though the water may look clear and beautiful it can still be polluted and dangerous to human and animal health,” she added.
It is simply unacceptable to me that MSD’s Valley Park and Fenton plants released millions of gallons of raw sewage into the river; and that the Fenton plant will continue to release untreated sewage into the river until April or May. Raw sewage is not just human waste, but a hazardous soup of residential, commercial and industrial organic and inorganic waste, including a whole host of fecal pathogens, antibiotic residues, toxic chemicals, etc.
Not only does raw sewage in the river pose a serious public health hazard; not only will raw sewage in the river take a toll on aquatic life and the riparian ecology, but it is illegal under The Clean Water Act.
Furthermore, in 2011 MSD signed a consent decree with the U.S. Government and Missouri Coalition for the Environment Foundation to remedy the situation.
While MSD for decades has lacked sufficient funding and leadership needed to update its infrastructure and treatment plants, and river engineering projects such as the Valley Park levee likely have exacerbated the recent flooding downstream from the Grand Glaize and Fenton plants, the facts that the Fenton plant continues to release raw sewage into the Meramec River, and that such facilities sit in floodplains that are increasingly prone to flooding is simply unacceptable. It also puzzles me that there does not seem to be much public outcry about our natural rivers being polluted in this way.
This situation with the MSD and the Meramec River reminds me of Chouteau’s Pond and the cholera outbreaks in 1849 due to water contaminated by human waste for lack of a proper sewage system.
Joe Smentowski of Rock Hill writes in to express his dismay over the condition of Simpson Lake. He reports that several canners have paddled it and conted that it “smells like a septic tank.” Smentowski, who has expertise on water issues, suspects that Simpson Lake suffered contamination when the Grand Glaize MSD sewage plant went down in the Goliath Storm of December 2015. He said he believes health agencies and county parks should be responsible to check out the extent of the contamination.