Almost three weeks after the Arizona Department of Environmental Services learned of a sewage spill in Star Valley’s Houston Creek, most residents did not know they faced a health threat in the neighborhood.
Fortunately, the volunteers of the Citizen Emergency Response Team rushed to the rescue — knocking on doors Sept. 18 to warn residents to stay away from the creek.
Many residents initially thought the CERT volunteers were selling something.
“The majority of the residents had no idea that there had been a spill,” said Mac Feezor, a CERT volunteer.
But when residents caught sight of the Payson Police Department volunteer supporting CERT, they realized the seriousness of the situation.
On Sept. 10, residents received news of a wastewater spill in Houston Creek.
A resident had noticed the spill days before on Sept. 1. They reported to ADEQ that the color of the stream “was off.”
ADEQ contacted Gila County Health and Emergency Management Department to send out a message to residents about the spill on Sept. 10. The county sent out a message on Everbridge, its emergency management tool. The Everbridge program calls cellphones and land lines, as well as sends text messages and emails on local emergencies.
But 150 Star Valley households did not receive the Sept. 10 message because they are not signed up for Everbridge or they did not reply they had received the message.
As CERT volunteers made their way through the community, they found residents did not fully understand the danger.
“We just said that we were assisting Gila County Health,” said Feezor. The volunteers handed “over the flyer (that Gila County Health is) asking people to stay away from the area and don’t allow visitors to go play in the creek.”
The volunteers used pictures taken from Google maps to locate the spill for residents.
“We took the time to tell people who wanted to know what was being done that the spill was being treated with a biological decontaminate,” said Feezor.
Josh Beck, with the Gila County Health Department, understands the cleanup treatment takes seven days before any results come back.
Kary Environmental Services, the company hired to do the cleanup for the Houston Creek Landing Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP), treated the spill during the week of Sept. 20-24. Both Beck and Jake Garret, manager of the wastewater division with Gila County, had hoped to hear test results from ADEQ by Sept. 23, but ADEQ did not have results. In fact, Garrett heard ADEQ only expects Kary Environmental to report on cleanup progress to the company, WWTP.
Representatives from both companies told Garret, “most of what is in the creek now is algae.”
Garret and Beck are a little confused over how long their warning signs need to remain on the creek.
“Given the delay in soil testing, I assume the warning will remain for the near future,” said Beck.
Feezor said he and the other CERT volunteers found “there were very few people who were alarmed, but many who were upset that the notifications hadn’t been immediate.”
He doesn’t know how the health department could have moved faster on the emergency.
“Josh reached out to us when ADEQ said they didn’t know who to notify in the area,” said Feezor.
After that, CERT had to wait a day for permission from both the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and the Payson Police Department to knock on doors.
“Gila County and Payson were quick to produce a solution once they were handed the problem,” said Feezor.
Garret hopes the county can tell residents when the spill is cleaned up, but he’s concerned about “who checks off to see if it got done right.”
Until Garret is crystal clear about the health of Houston Creek, “signs are still up. They will not go down until I hear from ADEQ that the cleanup is complete.”