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Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008
Rainfall from Tropical Storm Fay on August 24, 2008 Hal Pierce, SSAI/NASA GSFC

Tropical Storm Fay has finally left northeast Florida, heading for the Florida panhandle and on to Alabama and Mississippi–and we were happy to see her go.

As part of my job as Utility Director for a small city, Fay meant extra hours preparing for and responding to problems caused by the storm.

Most people know about the extra hours electrical companies work to get power back up. And those guys are amazing. 

 But it takes a lot of effort from water and wastewater operators and technicians to make sure people have safe water to drink. And to prevent wastewater overflows from contaminating drainage ditches and streams. On top of that, we make sure the wastewater treatment plants keep working to remove contaminants before effluent flows to the river or other receiving stream.
With widespread power outages, our water and sewer treatment plants were running under generator power. The larger lift stations (pumping stations that send wastewater to the treatment plant) have generators also–but the small pump stations do not.
That means we have to haul portable pumps or generators around town to prevent sewer overflows. And operators still have to work the treatment plants, run laboratory tests, open and close valves and monitor processes in tropical storm conditions.
One of our lift station generators tripped off for some unknown reason during the storm. It could have been from the intermittent power or a power surge. Fortunately our SCADA (electronic monitoring system) was working at the time, so we were able to catch the problem quickly and get the generator running again.
Even so, about 500 gallons of raw sewage overflowed from the lift station into the lagoon. Unfortunate, but not preventable. The generator is well maintained, and tested weekly, but every possible problem can’t be prevented. Of course, we reported the spill to the Department of Environmental Protection as required.
That’s why I take issue with some of the environmental activists who insist on zero tolerance for wastewater spills. None of us want to put sewage into lakes, rivers or oceans, especially those in the business of protecting the environment–but it’s not a perfect world. Equipment fails and backups don’t come on. Tropical storms and hurricanes wreak havoc on instrumentation and electrical equipment. Homeowners and businesses dump things down the drain that they shouldn’t.
The best possible effort is made to protect our environment, but sometimes it’s just not enough.
Despite the flooding rains and high winds our city came through the storm just fine, with a lot of dedication and elbow grease from the guys in the field. But we’re all ready for some sunshine in the Sunshine State.

I’ve been carefully following the story of Bruce Ivins, the FBI’s prime suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks, especially after recently reading The Demon in the Freezer.

Richard Preston’s book was scary enough. But, to discover that one of our country’s own scientists, with no training in bioweapons preparation could singly produce and distribute a weapons-grade anthrax powder–at our own Fort Detrick no less–is enough to make you want to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus to bed.

Of course, Ivins committed suicide, so no trial is forthcoming. The FBI needs to complete a thorough analysis of all evidence to determine if their suspicions are correct. After all, they previously targeted another Ft. Detrick employee, Steven Hatfill, who recently won a $5.82 million lawsuit against the government for ruining his career and invading his privacy.

Most of the evidence against Ivins is circumstantial, including testimony of his therapist that indicated he was homicidal. Which begs the question of how an unstable, homicidal man is allowed to work in a Biosafety Level 4 government biodefense lab.

After a complete analysis, if evidence against Ivins is insufficient his name should be cleared and the case should remain open.

If Ivins is confirmed as the attacker, well, that means we’re all pretty vulnerable. His was a brilliant scientist, but his career with the government was in vaccine development, not bioterror. Is it that easy for one person, working alone to create a pathogenic weapon?

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