MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The public works department in Memphis had identified erosion near a sewer line before it broke and began dumping 50 million gallons of untreated wastewater into a creek and a lake per day, leading to a massive fish kill and warnings of extremely high levels of the E. coli bacteria, officials said Wednesday.
Robert Knecht, director of the Memphis Public Works Division, said the department had been taking bids for a project to stabilize the area near the pipe before the 96-inch sewer line ruptured Thursday.
Knecht said record rainfall amounts in March caused the soil to erode and an embankment to fail, leading to the sewer line break. The erosion was first identified sometime "after January," Knecht said. The bids were due Friday, he said.
"The impact was completely unforeseen and unexpected," Knecht said.
A bypass that will stop the spill will be completed by midnight Wednesday, Knecht said.
The break has sent millions of gallons of wastewater into Cypress Creek and adjoining McKellar Lake, which flows into the Mississippi River. Ronne Adkins, a regional director of external affairs for the state environmental department, said there is no data showing if wastewater had entered the Mississippi.
"The Mississippi River is high, so the water in the river is pushing back into McKellar Lake," Adkins said.
Officials say the creek and lake are not a drinking water source, but they are warning people to avoid touching or fishing in the waters in both bodies of water. Tests show levels of E. coli up to 300 times the recreational criteria for streams and up to 580 times the level for lakes, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation said. The agency issued a temporary water contact advisory for the lake and creek, and sampling and tests will continue.
Officials say they can't provide a timetable for when the creek and lake will be safe for people. Warning signs have been placed near the creek, and a marina on the lake is closed. People who live on houseboats on the lake also have been warned.
E. coli can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, pneumonia and other illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website. No one had reported health issues related to the leak as of Wednesday, officials said.
According to state environmental officials, more than 10,000 dead fish have been documented and 17 species of fish have been observed as being part of the kill. However, wildlife officials have not seen mass die-offs of birds, amphibians or plant-life, said Allen Pyburn, aquatic habitat biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
John Rumpler, a senior attorney with Environment America, an environmental advocacy group, said he was not surprised that the leak has caused a fish kill and led to high levels of E. coli in the water.
"If I were a resident of a metro area that just had a fish kill that killed 17 species of fish in a beloved local creek, I wouldn't need to go any further to say this is an environmental disaster," Rumpler said.