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St. Johns Riverkeeper Questions JEA’s Hurricane Preparedness

Leonard J. DeFrancisci
Wikimedia Commons

The St. Johns Riverkeeper is investigating whether Jacksonville’s sewer system complies with state environmental regulations.

That’s after millions of gallons of partially-treated sewage leaked into the ground and waterways during Hurricane Matthew.

It’s not the first time the Riverkeeper has called out JEA for problems with Jacksonville’s sewers.

In 2006, the Riverkeeper sued JEA over “routine” sewage overflows. St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said that suit was settled in 2010.

“We along with JEA and the Public Trust for the Environment hired an engineer to review their system and to make recommendations to reduce the amount of routine, everyday sanitary sewage spills, but also to identify measures to be taken to prevent spills as the result of an emergency like Hurricane Matthew,” she said.

Rinaman said JEA held up its end of the bargain when it came to routine spills, but more than 11 million gallons of sewage that recently overflowed are proof it didn't properly plan for the storm.

Particularly disturbing, she said, is five sewage pump stations failed when the power went out, and they lacked backup generators.

“We’re doing a thorough scrub to make sure that number one: they’re in compliance with their permit,” she said. “If not, we’ll take appropriate action.”

That could mean another lawsuit.

As the Florida Times-Union first reported, JEA insisted that four of the five failed stations were grandfathered in, meaning they weren’t required to install backup generators when the rule took effect. The utility said the fifth pump doesn't serve enough customers to fall under the regulation.

Rinaman also said JEA could take some tips from neighboring St. Johns County, where sewage spills were more limited.

After massive overflows in Tampa and St. Petersburg post-Hurricane Hermine, Gov. Rick Scott directed DEP to create a new rule requiring utilities send out a notice of spills within the first 24 hours to keep better track of spills and hopefully prevent them.

But scientists with Climate Central recently published a report concluding overflows like these will only become more common as the planet’s climate changes.

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.