MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - City of Memphis will be pumping sewage water into the Mississippi River temporarily.
Friday morning, sewage began flowing out of underground pipes north of Mud Island near General DeWitt Spain Airport.
The overflow happened when the Stiles Treatment Facility--a 41-year-old water treatment plant next to the airport--lost power and several mechanical redundancies failed because of high water. Those failures caused pumps to stop working, which then sent the wastewater out of the pipes and up to the surface.
City of Memphis Public Works Director Robert Knecht said part of the plant should be back up and running in 12 hours, but the plant won't be fully operational for another 5-7 days.
To get rid of the wastewater, City of Memphis will be pumping it into the Mississippi River.
Knecht said that was the best option available. It will impact the fewest number of people and businesses.
"It's unfortunate, but at least it's going to minimally impact businesses and residences. It's what plants have to do in these conditions," Knecht said. "Under extreme circumstances, you have to do what's needed to protect public health and safety. In this case, getting it away from the public and into the Mississippi River is the best alternative that we have right now. It's not what we want to do, obviously. That's not what we're supposed to be doing, but we have to do it in these situations."
Knecht said it's likely that Tennessee will fine the city for pumping the water into the river, as doing so is a violation of the plant's permit.
Still, state officials agree that Memphis has very few options.
"This is an emergency situation, and there's really nowhere else for this water to go. We don't want it impacting businesses homes or development, and the Mississippi [River] can accommodate the flow," Ronne Adkins with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said.
This is not the first time Memphis has been forced to dump sewage into the Mississippi River. In fact, the city did it just two years ago when multiple sewage lines broke.
"Under extreme circumstances, you have to do what's needed to protect public health and safety," Knecht said.
The city was fined by the state for three sewage spills in 2016.
In a 2012 settlement with the EPA, the Department of Justice, and other agencies, Memphis officials agreed to make $250 million in wastewater improvements.
Immediate repairs to the plant are expected to cost between $10-20 million. However, Knecht said the billion-dollar plant seriously needs infrastructure upgrades that would cost much more.
"We've started identifying pressing needs for our system that's why we raised sewer fees," Knecht said.
The city acknowledged on Friday that $170 million in modernization to the aging sewer system is in the works, but despite that, clean water advocates like Scott Banbury with the Sierra Club aren't happy with Friday's developments.
"While the city is making large investments right now to correct that problem, it's not corrected yet, and it is a shame to see raw sewage at whatever ratio discharged directly into the Mississippi River," Banbury said.
State officials are already on the ground in Memphis monitoring the situation. The state has notified the EPA.
The State Department of Environment and Conservation will review the city's response and assess potential penalties, but they have to wait for the event to end to do so.
Temporary pumps should arrive Friday night which would at least get the facility working at partial capacity.
Knecht assures citizens the problems at the plant will not impact drinking water, since the wastewater is on the surface and the Memphis Aquifer is deep underground.
Dewitt Spain Airport shut down Friday night as a precaution, and crews put a giant "X" marker at the end of the runway to tell pilots it's closed.
The runway should re-open at 8 a.m. Saturday, provided it doesn't become flooded.
Pilots aren't taking any chances, though. Officials said 90 percent of tenants at the airport have moved their planes to another location, and hangars on the lower ground have been cleared out.
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