Damaged pipe released 2.5 million gallons of wastewater into branch of Elizabeth River, HRSD says

Damage to a wastewater pipe in Chesapeake on Friday caused 2.5 million gallons of wastewater to be released into a canal connected to the Elizabeth River and the Intracoastal Waterway, according to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District.

City staff reported the damage to HRSD at 5:48 p.m. Friday, saying a large tugboat “hooked” the 20-inch cast-iron force main — a type of pressurized pipe — with its anchor earlier that afternoon, according to HRSD spokesperson Leila Rice. Staff noticed bubbles on the surface of the water and the smell of raw sewage near the bridge along South Battlefield Boulevard that crosses the Elizabeth River near Great Bridge Lock Park, Rice said.

The Virginia Department of Health is advising residents to postpone recreational activities in the area, which includes waterways around Bells Mill Park, until water quality returns to normal levels. Rice said in an email Tuesday that health officials are testing for enterococcus, fecal coliform, and HF183, which is the most common RNA virus found in the feces of healthy individuals, according to Nature Journal.

Rice said the levels of these substances were elevated at four sample sites as of Tuesday afternoon, but it’s unclear exactly how much higher the levels are than normal.

At about 1 p.m. the tugboat, known as “Miss Judy,” was moving a dredge owned by Norfolk Dredging through the canal, according to an incident report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The tugboat radioed the bridge operator to report one of the dredge’s spuds — a large stake used as an anchor — was “stuck on something.”

The pressure in the pipe dropped from 33 psi to 3 psi at about 1:15 p.m. on Friday, according to Rice. The report from city staff at 5:48 p.m. was the first time HRSD was notified of the issue, Rice said.

HRSD isolated the section of the line that runs under the waterway and diverted the flow away from the leak by 8 p.m. Friday, Rice said. No injuries were associated with the damage to the pipe, and neither were impacts to the district’s services nor to marine traffic.

“HRSD is still determining the plan for repair which will carefully consider the long term sustainability of the infrastructure and feasibility of repairs,” Rice said, adding officials have not determined how much repairs will cost.

Attempts to reach a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality were unsuccessful Tuesday.

HRSD has not determined how the tugboat was able to strike the pipe, which is demarcated by signs and other means, according to Rice.

“As for how the driver/captain would know the location of the pipe, there are signs in place on both sides instructing vessels to raise anchors before approaching the Great Bridge Lock in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway,” Rice said. “In addition, navigation maps also contain such details.”

Gavin Stone, 757-712-4806, gavin.stone@virginiamedia.com