Florida water ‘looks like root beer, smells like dead fish rolled in compost’ as environment reeling from Hurricane Ian

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

Records and personal accounts show that Ian’s tolls are full of leaks and stinky spills that could cause problems 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 reports in their database are initial calls that have not necessarily been validated or investigated by the relevant agencies, but nonetheless provide a preliminary look at the significant toll from Hurricane Ian. CBS News has asked the National Response Center for more information on the cases related to the hurricane.

Among the reports are several cases of sunken boats, a diesel leak, the release of 2,300 gallons of sodium hypochlorite (chlorine) from a pipeline, and in one case, an “unknown green slime” in an apartment complex that a resident claims was causing respiratory issues. All of 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 firsthand. Trucks trapped in floodwaters are leaking battery acid and gasoline, he told CBS News, and there are many flooded properties that have been hit with pesticides and herbicides that are now being washed into waterways.

This outflow is so significant that it was recorded by NASA satellites. In the images in the tweet below, the colorful turquoise eddies are sediment churning in the water, while the brown is runoff from land.

Tomasko and others are collecting water samples along Florida’s west coast — from Boca Grande to Sarasota — that were affected by Ian. They haven’t received the results yet, but the storm’s environmental effects, he said, are quite evident.

“This stuff that’s coming out, it looks like brown sludge that’s coming out,” Tomasko told CBS News, saying he saw this runoff when he went out to take samples. They were about 1.8 miles offshore when they saw the “plume” coming out.

Tannins from decaying plant matter (left) can be seen flowing into the turquoise water of the Gulf of Mexico. This picture was taken about 1.5 miles into the Gulf.

Dave Tomasco

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

It wasn’t turbidity, he said, but tannins — fermented organic matter — in about five feet of water.

Several waterways have turned into a huge “underwater compost pile” filled with organic material washed up by the storm, Tomasko said. This material is naturally broken down by bacteria and due to the excess material, it is already causing algal blooms.

In some areas, the water is spreading beneath these blooms, with the bottom layer becoming significantly darker as oxygen levels are depleted, he said, adding that this combination can be deadly for marine life.

“You just swim if you’re a big fish, but if you’re a small fish, you can’t swim far enough to get away from it,” he said. “And if you’re like something that lives at the bottom of the bay, like an oyster or a clam, or a worm or a starfish, it might be that that’ll kill you in its place. So, we’ll probably go see, I think, a huge amount of fish they kill.”

Organic material is expected after a big storm, from plants damaged by wind and rain and excess water. But many things that enter the environment are not natural.

“The thing that scared me was we were coming down that road — now it’s like a creek — and there’s five portables … they’re all blown over the side and right there in the water,” Tomasko said. “Well, cars, trucks, dead animals, alligators, snakes, it’s just a mess right now.”

A portable toilet is seen on its side in flood waters in Florida after Hurricane Ian.

Dave Tomasco

There were also many reports of sewage overflows, he said. In the days after Hurricane Ian, Tomasko said he received 13 reports of sewage treatment plant overflows in Manatee and Sarasota counties alone. He believes these aren’t the only overflows — there’s a sewage plant five blocks from his home that’s overflowing but not being recorded, he says.

With all of these issues coming together, Tomasko worries that Florida will see something similar to what happened after Hurricane Charley in 2004, when the entire Charlotte Harbor experienced a months-long “oxygen crash.”

“We had no oxygen in the river until 100 miles upstream for about three months,” he said. “Well, all the fish that lived in that river just died and then washed up in the harbor.”

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

“And that’s worse than Charlie,” he said. “…We don’t really know what this will do… We don’t know how resilient our systems will be.”

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