A mile long stretch of Mexico Beach is under a health advisory after thousands of gallons of untreated sewage flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.
City officials said the incident began Sunday afternoon when Tropical Storm Debby knocked out power to a sanitary lift station near the intersection of Florida Avenue and 6th Street. That caused an overflow of sewage out of a manhole and into drainage ditches that feed into the 8th Street canal.
The power loss rendered built-in alarms inoperable and public works employees didn't discover the discharge until Monday morning. By then, an estimated 38,000 gallons of sewage had flowed through the canal and into the gulf.
City crews spread lime at the discharge site to kill bacteria and suppress the smell of sewage. "We did everything that we were supposed to do as far as cleaning up the problem," said Chris Hubbard, City Administrator. "People just need to be aware that there is a risk but we're doing everything possible we can to negate that."
The city contacted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which called for water quality tests. The Bay County Health Department posted public service announcements at beach access points.
"We're advising not to swim in the water until we get results back from the sampling," said Joe Scully, the health department's water program supervisor. "That's a large amount of sewage that did overflow and potentially bacteria in the sewage could cause illnesses."
The health notice warns swimmers that sewage contamination can expose them to intestinal viruses, bacteria and parasites.
The water in the canal is dark brown in color, but Hubbard said it is a normal condition caused by tannin released when vegetation decays. "That color isn't from the leak," he said.
Despite the notices, dozens of swimmers took advantage of the calm after the storm and swam in the discharge area. Wendy Chandler of Valdosta, Georgia told her two young children to stop playing in the canal when she learned of the possible contamination. "It was absolute news to me or I wouldn't have let my children swim in the water," she said.
The affected area extends for half a mile in both directions from the canal – from 6th Street to 13th Street. Hubbard said the city has notified all businesses of the situation and posted information on its web site and Facebook page.
"It's unfortunate, but the important thing is that we're on top of it," said Hubbard. "We've made all of our notifications, we've let the people know that there's the potential for risk and we're going to get it cleaned up and resolved as soon as possible."
Chandler, who also owns property in Mexico Beach, praised the city for being proactive. "I think accidents happen… so as long as they're taking precautions to clean it up, I think everything's great," she said.
Hubbard said results of water tests will be available on Wednesday. The advisory will remain in place until it is determined that there is no risk of a health hazard, he said.