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Sewage spill casts light on first response policies

Sun Advocate reporter

Cheyenne Powell points down at a pool of sewage that poured into her mother-in-law's bedroom Feb. 27.

Price leaders and administrators said the city is reviewing its first response protocols following a sewer line backup that left raw sewage in at least six homes last Wednesday.

"I think we (the city) could have done a lot better in letting residents know what to do," said Mayor Joe Piccolo Monday referring to the response to incident. "It seems like they felt like they were alone."

The mayor's comments followed an event that seemed steeped in confusion.

The Powell family, who were struggling about what to do after the members came home and found sewage in their basement, resorted to calling the Sun Advocate after a few hours.

The family returned home Feb. 27 at 2 p.m. and found the flooded basement.

By 5:30 p.m., the troops had gathered at 512 East 400 South and surrounded Edith and Tracey Powell as they sat on their front porch.

Health Hazards in Raw Sewage

Sanitary sewage spills have been determined to carry a variety of biohazards. Below is a table from the Utah Department of Health defining several potential hazards in three categories.

BacteriaSigns & SymptomsAverage Latency Period
• SalmonellaNausea, headache, diarrhea and vomitingSix to 72 hours
• TetanusMuscular stiffness in jaw, neck. Sweating, difficulty swallowing Eight days fever
• ShigellaCramps, diarrhea, fever, bloody stool, nauseaOne to three days
• LeptospirosisIntestinal problems, liver and kidney diseaseFour to 10 days
• E ColiDiarrhea, vomiting, little or no fever, blood in in stoolApproximately three days
• TulareisisChills, fever, swollen lymph nodesThree to five days
• YersiniaDiarrhea, fever, abdominal pain One to 14 days
(The EPA also lists: cholera, typhoid fever, bacillary dysentery and gastroenteritis.)
VirusesSigns & SymptomsAverage Latency Period
• Hepatitis AFever, abdominal pain, nausea, jaundice, dark colored urineApproximately 30 days
• Hepatitis BNausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, jaundice,joint pain 60 to 90 days
• Hepatitis CDevelops slowly, loss of appetite, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting Six to nine weeks
• HIVDestroys immune system, prone to opportunistic infectionOne to two years
• PolioFever, headache, nausea, muscle pain and stiffness, paralysis in stoolSix to 20 days
(The EPA also lists: meningitis, common colds and encephalitis)
ParasitesSigns & SymptomsAverage Latency Period
• Entameoeba histolyticaMild nausea, abdominal tenderness14 to 28 days
• Giardia lambliaCramps, weight loss, bloating, fever is rare, joint painSeven to 10 days
(The EPA also lists: toxoplasmosis and crypotosporidiosis)

Recommended cleanup procedures

Most procedures found on health sites address precautions and procedures for workers who are exposed to sewage, eg. wastewater treatment employees. There are instructions on that address indoor cleanup. They are as follows:

  • Remove any gross contamination and dispose of in a sewage treatment facility and not into storm drains.
  • Open all windows and use fans where available to increase ventilation and reduce humidity.
  • Excess water should be removed by pumps, wet vacs or mopping, empty into sewage system.
  • Discard all potentially contaminated food, food containers, cosmetics, medicines and medical supplies, stuffed toys, mattresses and pillows, upholstered furniture, carpet padding, cardboard and other objects that are porous or difficult to clean.
  • Where possible discard large carpets, foam rubber, books and paper products.
  • Place discarded contaminated materials in plastic bags.
  • Plasterboard, wooden paneling and skirting should be discarded if they have absorbed water.
  • Wash affected areas and furnishings with a detergent solution to remove contamination, then disinfect, rinse with clean water and allow to dry thoroughly, preferably outside where UV light aids decontamination.
  • Avoid spreading contamination when moving furniture, etc. by placing plastic sheeting on the floor.
  • Rinse clothes with clean water, then wash in hot water with bleach.
  • Ensure surfaces are completely dry before replacing carpeting, plasterboard etc. Could take up to 30 days.

Daughter-in-law Cheyenne Powell was engaged in what sounded from her end a heated discussion with the Price mayor.

"He said it wasn't the city's fault," she indicated as she hung up the phone. "He said that the city can't put my in-laws up in a hotel room."

Cheyenne expressed dismay that the city would not help relocate her in-laws while the sewage, pooled in their basement, was cleaned.

The Powell clan said they believed the flood was caused by city workers trying to clean out a sewer line on their street earlier Wednesday.

Piccolo confirmed that he was on the phone with Cheyenne Powell and said she had asked for her in-laws to be put up in the Greenwell Inn at $142 a night.

"I can't authorize something like that," said Piccolo on Monday morning. "I did say that I would have physically helped them get out of the house if they needed."

While the Powells were hit hard by the sewer backup, they were not alone.

It was estimated that at least six homes on 400 South experienced some level of flooding.

Two houses down, a technician from Service Master Restoration and Cleaning Service was vacuuming another finished basement.

He insisted that a face mask be worn before heading into the wet basement.

"There was about 4 inches of raw sewage in here," he said.

Walking around the basement, he pointed to several pieces of furniture, including a dark wood bed, and said all items would have to discarded. He explained that the federal regulations for cleanup of raw sewage called for anything porous that comes into contact with the material to be destroyed.

"Even the baseboard and drywall for a few feet up will have to be replaced," he said.

Confusion seemed to be prevalent in many aspects of the incident, including how hazardous a raw sewage spill is and what protocol should be followed in handling the situation

At 5:30 p.m., several of members of the Powell family were still trying to remove some items from the basement.

Edith and her grandson,17-year-old Devon Powell, have bedrooms underneath the home that were saturated by the sewage.

Family members had donned blue protective booties as they sloshed around the basement rooms, but apparently the booties came after some of them had gone into the area in their street clothes.

"I ruined my shoes and my pants," said Cheyenne Powell.

It seemed fairly apparent, at least at the Powell's home, that residents were coming in direct contact with the sewage.

Devon Powell looks around the bathroom in his basement that was flooded with raw sewage Feb. 27. The 17-year-old's bedroom was inundated and many of his possessions were ruined.

As evening was settling on the neighborhood, the Powells were piling into their cars and evacuating the house and Service Master was busily cleaning up at least three of the homes.

At that point, the city had not sent anyone back to check on the homeowners and the from Service Master seemed to be the ones handling questions.

Later that evening, Price Police Chief Aleck Shilaos was contacted at a city council meeting about the incident. He said at that time the city was aware of the situation and was following protocol.

A call from this reporter advised the public safety dispatch center that some residents were still in their homes and may have been unaware of the potential hazards. The dispatcher, it appears, then contacted the Price City Fire Department.

Fire Chief Paul Bedont said he had not been informed of the situation earlier, but did make a site visit that night after he was called.

Bedont said the main hazard of a sewage spill was hydrogen sulfide gas.

"I went out and tested for it at around 8 p.m. and it was negative," said the fire cheif.

Bedont said he heard that night that some people were talking about sending out Hazmat to check out the spill, he sounded incredulous at that suggestion.

"People don't need to panic over this," he said. "They just need to be cautious and not walk around in it or have direct contact with the sewage."

The fire chief said homeowners would be all right if they didn't go down into the spill and shut the door upstairs.

"It wouldn't smell great, but they would be OK,"said Bedont.

Pinning down the exact hazard level of a raw sewage spill is somewhat challenging as the opinions seemed to range from a nasty annoyance to a biohazard depending on whose it is.

The local belief appears to be that a spill requires caution and common sense but that the overall hazards are minimal. Service Master's technicians adhere to much stricter federal standards and several federal health agencies put a much more urgent and serious face on a sewage spill.

In the 1990s, the United States Environmental Protection Agency pulled together a subcommittee to address the growing incidents of sewer overflows around the nation. The reason for the SSO Federal Advisory Subcommittee was stated as the "EPA has found that Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) caused by poor sewer collection system management pose a substantial health and environmental challenge..."

The EPA's and Centers for Disease Control estimate of raw sewage hazards is infinitely more dire than the local one.

Both agencies list a plethora of bacteria, viruses, parasites, molds, fungi and intestinal worms that exist in raw sewage. The list ranges from chlorea to Legionnaire's disease.

EPA materials show a number of ways that a person can be exposed to the hazards, including direct contact (touching, walking around in it) to inhalation (the material depicts someone mopping up a flooded basement).

The materials also confirm the assertion by Service Master that everything that came in contact with the sewage must be discarded.

"SSOs also damage property and the environment. When basements flood, the damaged area must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected to reduce the risk of disease. Cleanup can be expensive for homeowners and municipalities. Rugs, curtains, flooring wallboard panels and upholstered furniture usually must be replaced."

Gary Sonntag, director of public works, said his department did follow established protocol Wednesday after establishing that it was a sewer backup.

"We found out about the problem at 12:30 p.m. and mobilized workers to the site," he said. "The workers checked and found standing water and sewage in a manhole."

He said the blockage was cleared and the workers knocked on doors to find out if residents had experienced a problem.

Residents were told that they needed to contact city hall and fill out a complaint form if there was damage.

"However, we do not have the latitude to go on to property and do cleanup and restoration work," he said.

Bedont, Piccolo and Sonntag agreed that there could have been clearer communication which might have made the situation a little easier for residents.

Both Piccolo and Sonntag said that perhaps a pamphlet outlining the potential hazards that also provided recommendations for handling the spill and resource phone numbers would be a good idea.

"I believe that we need a different kind of response that includes the fire department and city officials," said Piccolo on Monday.

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