JEA makes house call to discuss sediment spill with Millers Creek board

JEA makes house call to discuss sediment spill with Millers Creek board
Members of the Millers Creek Special Tax District met with JEA representatives at the intersection of Olive Street and Tiber Avenue on Aug. 10 to discuss a July 24 sediment spill into the tributary near their homes. From left: Bobby Baker; Jonathan Wright; Barbara McMorrow; Louis Joseph; Lindsay Starner, JEA manager of environmental permitting and complaince; Gina Kyle, JEA media spokeswoman; Sharon Johnson, board president; Joe Wagner, senior dredging engineer with Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Inc.; Derek Flynt and Greg Corcoran, JEA manager of community involvement and project outreach.

When three Jacksonville Energy Authority representatives met with five members of the Millers Creek Special District Board in St. Nicholas Aug. 10, the verdict was still out as to whether JEA would have to pay a fine for what might have been a third “illegal” sediment spill into Millers Creek.

In the early afternoon July 24, Louis Joseph, a creek-side resident, alerted his neighbors that a milky-colored sediment was flowing into the creek from a drainpipe on property owned by his next-door neighbor Kate Thilges. It was the third time an incident like this had occurred in the area, where 28 homeowners have elected to pay $3,000 per year in extra taxes to cover the costs of eventually dredging the silt-filled waterway bordering their homes.

After the previous two incidents, which occurred in 2016, JEA was forced to pay a fine to the City of Jacksonville by the City’s Environmental Quality Division.

Representing JEA during the onsite visit were Gregory Corcoran, manager, community involvement and project outreach; Lindsay Starner, manager, environmental permitting and compliance, and Gina Kyle, JEA media spokesperson. The trio met with the residents at the intersection of Olive Street and Tiber Avenue, near where the incident took place.

Board members who attended the meeting were Sharon Johnson, president, Jonathan Wright, Barbara McMorrow, Louis Joseph, and Derek Flynt. Bobby Baker attended in the place of his wife, Tamara, a board member, and Joe Wagner of Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Inc. was also present. Wagner is consulting with the board on its dredging project.

JEA’s team said they understood the board’s concerns and explained that everything JEA did to mend two sewer line breaks on Olive Street was done correctly, according to “standard operations.” 

“Any time we have a job like this, we put down filter fabric on the (storm) inlets and sandbags around that to ensure if there is heavy rainfall or anything from our site, it is not going down the storm drains,” said Starner. “Those (filters) are always checked when the guys come out and when they leave.”

Corcoran agreed. “What we did here is standard operations for sewer cave-ins,” he said, noting he as a St. Nicholas resident and Starner, who resides in Ortega, live locally and have a stake in what happens to the environment.

JEA set up a “well-point” system when it initially arrived on the scene to de-water the area, putting a “jet” into the ground near the underground pipes, which lie 8 feet below ground, said Starner. The water from the soil around the sewer line was piped to a nearby storm drain so the area underground could dry out and the pipe be fixed. No sewerage had leaked from the sewer line, she said.

Starner assured the group that her environmental team responds “immediately” to environmental complaints from residents, and that JEA has a separate “incident response team” that also responds immediately. “I was out here that day as well,” she said.

A large pile of clay and sand sits at the intersection of Olive Street and Tiber Avenue as JEA works on a sewer line July 24.

A large pile of clay and sand sits at the intersection of Olive Street and Tiber Avenue as JEA works on a sewer line July 24.

After hearing the board’s complaint, JEA took the extra precaution of piping water from the well-point system into a vac truck instead of the storm drains so it could release it into the sewer system once the truck was full, she said.

“The creek is a tidal creek. It’s not the sand from the streets but silting from the tides that’s what’s happening,” Corcoran had explained to The Resident before the meeting.

After Corcoran and Starner finished explaining JEA’s role in the incident, Millers Creek Board member Louis Joseph politely disputed their claim that the storm-drain filters were in place when the spill occurred.

“My wife called me because our kids were in the backyard fishing and they saw it,” he said, noting he has the entire incident on video. “They said the creek is getting white. I saw milky water.

“Leslie, my wife, walked down here with the video and there was no protection,” Joseph continued. “They (JEA) had a hose to the fire hydrant, and they were doing work with a jet and the water was rushing out. It was washing the right side of the mound of clay into the drains.”

Board Member Barbara McMorrow agreed, noting she had also rushed to the scene. “These were not in place,” she said, pointing to a black filter covering a drain on Tiber Avenue.

“Afterwards they (JEA) acted like when the health inspector walks into a kitchen,” said Joseph. “When that happens everything changes, your whole demeanor, you are looking for problems. And that’s what happened here. They brought out the vacuum truck, put those down and everything,” he said.

Starner did not directly contradict Joseph, but she indicated what he probably had seen was turbid water in the creek bed. Earlier in the conversation, she said the milky white color of the creek water residents had seen was “turbidity,” a result of clay or sand stirred up from the creek bottom when rushing water flowed through the storm pipe.

“There is a misnomer about sedimentation vs. turbidity,” she said. “When you get a rush of water out there, that’s called turbidity. It’s sediment that’s already in the creek, which is stirred up by the rushing water, and it’s going to look like sedimentation is going on. This is a turbidity issue in the creek. I am not aware of a sedimentation issue.”

Because Millers Creek is a navigable waterway, JEA decided to go “above and beyond” what was necessary and installed a floating turbidity barrier, Starner said. The barrier allows stirred-up sediment from the creek to settle in place and not flow down the tributary, she added, noting it had become dislodged more than once and was reset by JEA personnel. “This is not a normal thing that we do, but we are willing to take an extra step,” she said.

“I want you to know that if the boom was a PR effort, it was a total failure,” said Sharon Johnson, who added that the floating barrier had broken loose and spent five days hugging the coastline near her house or across the river. “Rarely was it protecting or containing any of the area,” she said. “It spent most of its time up against the banks.”

Johnson also questioned why a JEA worker said “we have fixed it now” just minutes after the spill occurred. She said she overheard that statement when she went to the site to meet a team from the City’s Environmental Quality Division (EQD), which was called to investigate the situation. “If you can fix it in a matter of minutes, what is going on?” she asked.

“When I came onsite, the only fix was that they shut down the well-point system to see if it was pulling anything,” Starner explained.

The residents also expressed concern about the 260 drains that flow into Millers Creek over a watershed that comprises nearly 500 acres bordered by Bishop Kenny High School, Route 95, Emerson Street and Arlington Expressway, and that similar incidents could occur anywhere in that area. They were told by Starner that stormwater drains are managed by the City’s Public Works Department and not by JEA.

“There are certain things Public Works can do if they are aware of the situation, and you need to bring it to their attention,” Starner said, noting that “separation boxes” can be installed in the drains allowing sediment to drop to the bottom so that clean water can flow into the creek.

Corcoran suggested the residents call 630-City to ensure problems with the storm drains are put on the list. “Jacksonville is the biggest city in the United States and they have a lot of ground to cover. Neighborhoods are the eyes and ears of the utility and public works,” he said. “Moving forward, we will make sure with our crews that we handle these things right when they come onsite.”

“We will definitely be exploring anything that Public Works or the City can offer us,” Johnson said after the meeting. “As a precaution, I think we are being required to police our area to determine if JEA is doing what they are supposed to be doing.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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