ARNOLD • Officials tried to assure frustrated Jefferson County residents at a town hall meeting Friday night that the continuing sewage spill into the Meramec River poses no environmental or health crises.
Four million gallons of untreated sewage continue to pour into the Meramec every day, a month and a half after the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District’s Fenton sewage treatment plant was overwhelmed and made inoperable by the Great Flood in December.
The biggest environmental impact of the sewage is a higher level of E. coli in the river, officials said at Friday’s meeting, which drew a crowd of about 60.
Levels of the naturally-occurring bacteria are now 10 to 50 times higher because of the sewage, said Jay Hoskins, MSD program manager of environmental quality.
But that extra E. coli has not affected drinking water and will degrade naturally within days or weeks once the Fenton plant is fully functioning again, probably in April, MSD spokesman Lance LeComb said. The agency expects the plant will be completing basic sewage treatment — namely, physically filtering the sewage — by March, he added.
“It is not for lack of resources that it’s not online yet,” LeComb said, noting that 7,300 man-hours have been put into getting the facility fixed since it flooded. “We are putting every resource that we can. This is somewhat unprecedented for us, obviously.”
In the meantime, MSD cautions people to avoid the river and to wash their hands and wear boots and gloves if they touch soil or water that may have come in contact with sewage.
People can only get sick from E. coli if they ingest it, said Steve Sykes, environmental supervisor for the Jefferson County Department of Public Health.
He added that his department has seen no uptick in sickness that correlates with the sewage spill.
Ann Dettmer, a spokeswoman from Missouri American Water, which provides drinking water from the Meramec, also told residents Friday that the sewage spill has not affected drinking water quality.
Some residents questioned the integrity of the company’s testing in light of the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Mich., but Dettmer said the company’s water treatment processes already thoroughly clean water of pathogens such as E. coli.
“If you want the second level of check, we’ll do it,” Dettmer said. “There is absolutely no comparison between Flint and us.”
Despite the officials’ answers, residents and representatives who came to the meeting did not hide their frustration or fears that the sewage would exact a health and environmental toll on the river and its wildlife.
“I’m pretty upset about it. It’s my home away from home,” said Arnold resident Steve Hanne, 60, about why he came to Friday’s meeting.
Rarely satisfied with MSD’s answers, those at the meeting at times talked over the speakers and peppered them with follow-up questions.
Why didn’t MSD have a plan B in case the treatment plant failed, a resident asked. Because the Great Flood was so catastrophic and of never-before-seen proportions, and all that can be done in such events is plan for recovery, the MSD representatives said.
Why don’t you haul the sewage away in trucks? asked state Rep. Rob Vescovo. Because MSD would need a truck every 80 seconds to transport all of it, MSD said.
What are you going to do to help people whose belongings were contaminated by sewage when their homes flooded? Jefferson County Councilwoman Renee Reuter asked. That’s what FEMA’s for, MSD said.
The MSD representatives did apologize for failing to post signs warning about the sewage spill on Arnold’s side of the Meramec. At first, signs were only posted on the St. Louis County side of the river warning that warmer-than-usual temperatures increased the risk for getting sick from E. coli.
“We fell down on that. We’re human beings,” LeComb said.
December was the first time the Fenton plant has flooded since it opened in 1988. LeComb said that MSD plans to close the plant in about 10 years, to consolidate its treatment centers in the area for efficiency.