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Sewage outfall pipeline concerns

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Hazardous waste from the Hamilton Seabright sewage pipeline has been contaminating the waters off South Shore beaches, according to a 2013 water-quality study — but only during rare, sustained weather patterns.

The final report of the study — a copy of which has been obtained by The Royal Gazette — measured human bacteria counts climbing as high as double, triple, and quadruple the American standard for contamination levels during strong easterly winds, tide and swell.

Conducted in collaboration with researchers from Universite Laval, Quebec, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) and Government scientists, the study lists five central South shore beaches as “unfit for recreational use” based on the water samples.

While a source close to the study admitted the levels of contamination measured should not be mitigated, they said the “dynamic environment” of the South shore waters means contamination lasts no more than ten hours at a maximum, during which time residents are unlikely to be swimming. But, windsurfers and kitesurfers could be at risk.

At its peak, the Seabright outfall dumps between half a million to a million gallons of untreated municipal sewage from the City of Hamilton — including waste from King Edward VII Memorial Hospital — into waters less than half a mile away from a string of South shore beaches.

While extensive water-quality research shows the environmental impact of the Seabright outfall is negligible during normal conditions, evidence of sewage washing up on nearby beaches in 2013 prompted further analysis of the outfall's effects during rare weather conditions.

According to the study: “Water quality on the beaches close to the sewage outfall can rapidly degrade, most likely due to rapidly changing climatic conditions [including] wind, swell, tides, [and] rain,” posing “implications in health, environmental, and tourism sectors.”

The report claims the grease balls — which one source described bluntly as “human waste in a raincoat” — “are visual evidence of impaired water quality” due to “rapidly changing climactic conditions” including wind, swell, tides and rain.

“In normal conditions, the prevailing winds and currents distribute the bulk of outfall contents into deeper waters. However, recent conditions have contributed to an increased occurrence of byproducts on local beaches, causing concern among locals,” explained a press release from BIOS after news first broke of the grease balls being washed ashore last summer.

The “dose response relationship” to such levels of faecal contaminants — that is, how the body would react — could result in “human health problems” such as “gastroenteritis, ear infections, respiratory illnesses, [and] staph infections,” the report claims.

The report also indicated that, due to “inadequate management”, the Seabright sewage outfall is “also a source of heavy metals, pharmaceutically active compounds, [and] nutrients.”

Faecal contaminants E. coli and Enterococci are measured in Colony Forming Units (CFU) per 100mL. The United States Environmental Protection Agency caps the acceptable “geometric mean” — a measure of an overall average — of faecal contaminants at 35 CFU per 100mL.

If a single sample exceeds 104 enterococci per 100ml in salt water, the US EPA recommends that the beach be closed, or posted, for swimming until levels are lower.

Water samples from the study show contaminations levels ranging from 40 CFU/100mL along Southlands Beach, to 104 CFU at Elbow Beach centre. Contamination levels along John Smith's beach, Grape Bay beach and Warwick beach were also found to be above the US EPA GeoMean standard.

Recommendations from the findings include a plan for treating Hamilton's sewage before disposal, extending the outfall, increased water-quality monitoring, the establishment of “action levels and protocols”, beach clean-ups, warnings and closure when sewage appears on shore.

The report also recommended public access to the information.

Responding to queries by this newspaper regarding the study, the Department of Health said despite “some uncertainty over the level of the initial results at the time, the conclusion drawn was that in easterly winds and swell, bathing water in the vicinity of the sewage outfall near Hungry Bay and Grape Bay could be degraded.”

“Small-scale specific microbiology studies with research partners at the time of the events last April were added to the regular monitoring of the Seabright outflow and adjacent beaches by the Department of Health,” said a Department spokesman.

“These studies have particularly enhanced our understanding of the movements and character of sewage from the discharge and the very specific conditions that lead to these rare events, which resolved themselves very quickly. This more detailed understanding is greatly assisting the various Departments, Ministries, the Corporation of Hamilton and research partners involved, in developing tailored effective solution options for sewage treatment which will be taken forward.”

Such solutions are said to be in the works, with Government confirming that a treatment facility for the new hospital should “come online” in 2014, and that efforts were being made to “improve grease collection from City restaurants.”

The Department of Health has also said it is seeking “approval for a feasibility study for infrastructure improvements,” and that “investment in a new [treatment] plant is being made” in order to improve the handling of waste at the Tynes Bay Septage Facility.

Scientists at BIOS' Oceanic Microbial Observatory (OMO) have been studying the impact of sewage outfalls in Bermuda since 2007.

“Looking for sewage contamination within the marine environment around Seabright is not easy,” said Rachel Parsons, the OMO Lab Manager, in 2013.

“The South Shore is a dynamic environment and dilution does lower the impact; however, because human bacteria strains have been detected within the region it would be premature to conclude that there is no threat to the environment or to human health”

While Government has said the so-called grease balls first appeared in May 2013, Nancy Prado, who regularly walks her dogs along Grape Bay Beach and first reported their appearance to BIOS, said she had been seeing the grease balls “for years now.”

“I think it's very concerning. It's raw sewage washing ashore,” said Mrs Prado. “The oceans look so beautiful, the sands are so pink, but you can't see hidden dangers like this. The biggest irony is how we market Bermuda. We say we're all blue water and pink beaches, but we could be one degree away from disaster. “What would happen if a tourist's child got sick from one of these [grease balls]?”

The problem is said to be under control, with no more evidence of the sewage washing ashore since last year.

According to the Department of Health: “Environmental Health and the Corporation of Hamilton have met with restaurants and been engaged in a survey of grease traps at source. They have implemented an initiative which has both mechanical upgrades of grease traps and behaviour change components for the kitchens. Long term options for extending the outfall and for improved sewage treatment are being discussed.

“The Department of Health will have greaseballs safely removed from the shoreline as soon as they are reported. If members of the public spot greaseballs we ask that they contact Environmental Health at 278-5333.

This map shows the location of the Seabright sewage outfall pipe and nearby beaches along South Shore.
A sewage plume at the Seabright pipeline outfall on South Shore.
Waves crash over the sewage outfall as it stretches out into the waters along the Paget shore line.

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Published March 18, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated March 17, 2014 at 11:46 pm)

Sewage outfall pipeline concerns

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