Ocean Springs residents may have noticed smoke emerging from streets and buildings in certain parts of the city. Not to worry, says Public Works Director Andre Kaufman, the vapors are a result of smoke testing the City is performing to find and fix problems in its sanitary sewer system.
The sanitary sewer system is just that-a public works system designed to take raw sewage from homes and businesses in Ocean Springs and sanitize it through treatment at the Mississippi Gulf Coast Waste Water Authority, a larger corporation that works with utilities across the region.
"Recently the Authority sent word to the City that we would be receiving a rate hike of up to 30 percent, largely because of a corresponding increase in our usage. This is a cost we will be forced to pass along to residents unless we can find and fix some of the sources for the increase," Kaufman said.
The biggest problem in a sanitary sewer system is infiltration and inflow, when run-off and rainwater enter the system through any place where the system has been compromised. Smoke testing is designed to find these places.
Harmless, non-toxic smoke is forced into the line in a controlled area of a block or two. Then, city workers fan out across the area to see where smoke is emerging. Smoke coming from manhole covers and roof plumbing vents is a sign that the system is working correctly.
Smoke coming from a regular roof vent or appearing inside a building is a sign of a significant problem. Residents witnessing this should contact Public Works immediately, as it's a sign that sewage vapors are leaking into the house, a health hazard.
"We tell the Police and Fire Departments where we will be working, and we keep a fireman with us as we progress through neighborhoods, just so to keep the public aware of what the situation is," said Kaufman.
Relatively few problems have been found inside houses, however. The single biggest source of infiltration comes instead from broken or missing clean-out caps somewhere on the property. Smoke rising from these caps quickly alerts workers to the problem.
Clean-out caps are designed to be a place where plumbers or city workers can get at a clog or other obstruction in the sewer line. When the caps are broken or gone, rainwater and runoff finds its way in the sewers. In low areas this extra water can quickly overload the system.
"We assume that any missing cap is accidental on the homeowner's part and we replace them free of charge," said Kaufman.
"It's possible that some people remove them on purpose to help drain low-lying yards. This is a big mistake for a number of reasons."
First of all, all sewers are metered and any increase in volume adds dollars to a homeowner's bill. Second and most importantly, the rain infiltration can overload the system in such a way that it can't function properly.
If water backs up in the system, toilets won't flush properly, and sinks and showers drain slowly. Washing machines and dishwashers won't work effectively. It's a domino effect across the neighborhood.
Currently, the Public Works Department has tested about 3 percent of the City's total area. Already they have located 100 missing or broken caps.
Letters have been sent to the owners of the property alerting them to the problem. If the department, which expects to continue testing for the next 90 days, finds the problem at the same rate throughout the rest of the city, the increases in output can be explained. Kaufman estimated that they would find over 1,000 in violation, either by accident or by design.
"Thanks to a $3 million dollar EPA Grant, the City has been able to modernize our sewer system. This testing will help in the process, but it will only work if residents are aware of the stress that broken or missing caps place on the system," Kaufman said. "We have storm sewers to deal with rainwater. Citizens need to use those and not the sanitary sewers."