Florida water ‘looks like root beer, smells like dead fish’ after Hurricane Ian

Author: Li Cohen / CBS

While Hurricane Ian has passed, it has left a damaging mark on Florida’s environment – complete with green sludge, thousands of gallons of leaked diesel and water that “looks like root beer, smells like dead fish rolled into compost.”

Records and personal accounts show that Hurricane Ian’s toll is filled with spills and stinky seepages into water that could spell trouble for the environment. CBS News found at least 20 records of environmentally hazardous issues suspected to be caused by the hurricane that have been reported to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center.

All of the reports in their database are initial calls that have not necessarily been validated or investigated by the appropriate agencies, but nonetheless, they provide a preliminary look at what could be significant tolls from Hurricane Ian. CBS News has asked the National Response Center for more information about the hurricane-relates cases.

Among the reports are several instances of sunken vessels, leaking diesel, the release of 2,300 gallons of sodium hypochlorite (bleach) from a pipeline, and in one case, an “unknown green sludge” at an apartment complex that a resident claims was causing respiratory issues. These reports were recorded between September 28, the day Hurricane Ian made landfall, and October 2.

Dave Tomasko, executive director of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program, has seen some of these issues. Trucks caught in floodwaters are leaking out battery acid and gasoline, he told CBS News, and there are many flooded properties wrought with pesticides and herbicides that are now getting washed into waterways.

That runoff is so significant that it was captured by NASA satellites. In the images in the tweet below, the colorful turquoise swirls are sediment stirred up in the water, while the brown is runoff from the land.

Tomasko and others have been gathering water samples throughout Florida’s west coast – from Boca Grande to Sarasota – impacted by Hurricane Ian. They haven’t yet gotten the results, but the environmental impacts of the storm, he said, are quite apparent.

“That stuff that comes out, it just looks like brown sludge coming out,” Tomasko told CBS News, saying he saw that runoff when going out to get samples. They were offshore about 1.8 miles when they saw the “plume” coming out.

Tannins from decomposing plant matter (on the left) are seen flowing into the blue-green water of the Gulf of Mexico. This image was captured about 1.5 mile into the Gulf.

“In Sarasota Bay, normally this time of year the water is beautiful blue-green, gorgeous,” Tomasko said, adding that now, it “looks like root beer, smells like dead fish rolled into compost.”

It wasn’t turbidity, he said, but tannins – fermented organic material – in roughly the top five feet of the water.

Several waterways have turned into a massive “underwater compost heap” filled with organic material washed in by the storm, Tomasko said. That material is naturally broken down by bacteria, and because of the surplus of materials, it’s already causing algal blooms.

In some areas, the water is layering out beneath those blooms, with the bottom layer becoming significantly darker with depleting oxygen levels, he said, adding that this combination can be deadly for marine life.

“You just swim away if you’re a big fish, but if you’re a small fish, you can’t swim far enough to get away from this,” he said. “And if you’re like something that lives on the bottom of the bay, like an oyster or clam, or a worm or a sea star, it might be that that’s going to kill you in place. So, we’re probably going to see, I think, a massive amount of fish kill.”

Organic material is expected after a major storm, from plants destroyed in the wind and rain, and excess water. But a lot of the stuff entering the environment isn’t natural.

“The thing that freaked me out was, we were going down this street – it’s now like a creek – and there’s five portapotties…they’re all blown over on the side and just there in the water,” Tomasko said. “So, cars, trucks, dead animals, alligators, snakes, it’s just a mess right now.”

A portable toilet was seen on its side in Florida floodwaters after Hurricane Ian.

There have also been numerous reports of wastewater overflows, he said. In the days following Hurricane Ian, Tomasko said he received 13 notices of overflowing wastewater treatment plants in Manatee and Sarasota Counties alone. He believes those aren’t the only overflows – there’s a wastewater plant five blocks from his home that’s overflowing but hasn’t been recorded, he says.

With all of these issues coinciding, Tomasko is concerned that Florida will see something similar to what happened after 2004’s Hurricane Charley, when all of Charlotte Harbor had a months-long “oxygen crash.”

“We had no oxygen in the river up to 100 miles upstream for about three months,” he said. “So, all the fish that lived in that river just basically died, and then they got washed down to the harbor.”

And after Ian, he said, it “looks really bad.”

“And this is worse than Charley,” he said. “…We don’t really know what this is gonna do. … We don’t know how resilient our systems are gonna be.”

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