Dallas County

In May, Some 270 Gallons of Sewage from Wilmer Sprayed into Dallas County's Goat Island Preserve

From Goat Island Preserve, you'll get a look at the Trinity River. Hopefully, you won't smell any raw sewage.
From Goat Island Preserve, you'll get a look at the Trinity River. Hopefully, you won't smell any raw sewage. Jacob Vaughn
Hikers and bikers often roam the dirt trails at Dallas County’s Goat Island Preserve, but in late May, they could likely smell the stench of raw sewage somewhere along their trek. That’s because a wastewater valve owned by the city of Wilmer (about 17 miles southeast of Dallas) was stuck open, spraying about 270 gallons of sewage into the preserve.

Local environmentalist Ben Sandifer filed a complaint over the incident with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) not long after it happened. It was the second spill at Goat Island in the last two years, Sandifer said. The previous one was even larger. The city of Wilmer’s public works department didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did the city’s media relations contact.

Goat Island Preserve is the second-largest preserve in the county’s open space system, according to its website. It is named after one of two islands located in the Trinity River. Near the south end of the preserve, people can see the remnants of a lock and dam started by the U.S. Corps of Engineers around 1910. It was meant to make the Trinity River more navigable, but the project was discontinued because of World War I.

The TCEQ began investigating the May spill in June. On July 11, the agency issued a notice of violation to the city of Wilmer for “failure to prevent unauthorized discharge of wastewater” regarding the spill at Goat Island. These discharges of Wilmer’s wastewater have plagued Dallas County for years.

TCEQ filed another complaint against the city of Wilmer in September 2014, also for the unauthorized discharge of wastewater. The TCEQ investigative report into the 2014 incident reads: “Specifically, during the investigation, it was documented that an overflow of untreated wastewater was discharged and contained within the front yard of a residential property immediately adjacent to the 700 block of Dewberry Street in Wilmer, Texas, between Sept. 3, 2014 and Sept. 5, 2014. The discharge was due to collection line blockage.”

“Sewage is mostly water that contains human excrement, industrial waste, and other unsanitary debris.” – Ben Sandifer, environmentalist

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The same investigative report lists previous complaints made against the city of Wilmer. One of those complaints stemmed from another discharge of wastewater in January 2010. This resulted in “an overflow of approximately 5,000 gallons of wastewater from a manhole located west of Kissel Street and south of Anderson Street, into Cottonwood Creek.”

Considering this history, “superior” might not be the first word you think of describing the city of Wilmer’s public water system. But just a few months before the latest Goat Island spill, the TCEQ designated Wilmer's public water system “superior.”

“I am so proud of our Water and Wastewater Department for all of their hard work and dedication for ensuring our utilities are maintained and drinking water is safe,” Wilmer Mayor Sheila Petta said in a February press release. “I am beyond excited that we continue to have a ‘Superior’ public water system and recognized by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).”

Just a few months later, 270 gallons of raw sewage from this “superior” public water system would spray into Goat Island Preserve. But how bad is this, really? “Raw is as unhygienic and dirty as the name suggests,” Sandifer explained. “Sewage is mostly water that contains human excrement, industrial waste, and other unsanitary debris.”

It can be a major health hazard, as the waste is a breeding ground for harmful microorganisms. “Bacteria, viruses and parasites thrive in raw sewage,” Sandifer said. “The natural environment can also be impacted. Land-based animals and plants can be poisoned by raw sewage leaks.

Although he didn’t see this as a result of the recent spill, Sandifer said if sewage enters aquatic environments, it can deplete oxygen in the water and lead to fish kills.

The May spill was cleaned up by early June, just a few days after it happened.

Reached for comment, the TCEQ said city of Wilmer staff came out to the site the same day the leak was reported. By 3 p.m., they had shut off the wastewater valve and begun to clean and disinfect the area. “The city [of Wilmer] started checking the sewer line valve daily to make sure the line was operating correctly and submitted photographs to the TCEQ investigator showing that the affected areas were cleaned and disinfected,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an emailed statement.

When all was said and done, the TCEQ didn’t fine the city of Wilmer over the incident because it “provided adequate documentation to resolve the violation,” the agency said. “The violation is now part of the city’s compliance history and if the incident recurs, enforcement action may be taken.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn