People, pets urged to stay out of James River after 'unprecedented' sewage spill

'It’s difficult for us to fully understand how much of that sewage is making its way into the James'
Posted at 10:20 AM, Jul 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-31 10:20:58-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has extended an advisory for swimmers or those looking to enjoy recreational activities in Richmond’s James River throughout the weekend.

VDH issued updated guidance on Friday for a 12-mile stretch of the James River after 300,000 gallons of raw sewage was leaked into Tuckahoe Creek on Tuesday.

Map of waterways affected by sewage leak

A 40-inch pipe ruptured at the Goochland County Department of Public Utilities, leaking the raw, undiluted sewage into a ditch near River Road that leads to Tuckahoe Creek, according to the state agency.

“We do know we are picking up high levels of bacteria in Tuckahoe Creek itself, so we know there's a potential for it to move into the James River,” VDH’s Waterborne Hazards Program Coordinator Margaret Smigo said. “It’s difficult for us to fully understand how much of that sewage is making its way into the James, and that results in our need to be conservative with respect to the advisory.”

For the safety of people and pets, VDH is advising that recreational water activities, such as swimming, wading, tubing, and whitewater kayaking (where submersion in the water is likely), should continue to be avoided over the weekend, according to a news release.

CBS 6 spotted swimmers jumping into the James River on Thursday and Friday morning.

Benjamine Moore closed his kayak and paddle board rental business, Waterfront, for a second day on Friday.

“The advisory said down to Belle Isle and Belle Isle is right over there,” he explained. “We are not going to subject people unknowingly going out in possibly contaminated water.”

Moore hoped to reopen his business to customers on Monday after the Department of Environmental Quality planned to collect samples of the water for testing again next week.

“This happening right now doesn’t mean there’s sewage in the water all the time,” he said hoping the spill doesn’t hamper business in the near future.

James River
James River

Smigo called the spillage “unprecedented” since similar events tend to happen during precipitation events that disrupt the sewer systems.

VDH said the advisory will be lifted once bacteria levels in these waters are safe for contact again.

According to VDH, swallowing contaminated water can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, with vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain or fever.

Contact with the contaminated water also can cause infections of the ears, nose, throat and skin.

To prevent recreational water illnesses due to exposure to sewage release events, VDH said people should:

  • Avoid contact with the water bodies noted above and observe advisory signage posted at water body access points.
  • Avoid any area of the water body where there is water with a foul odor, dead or dying fish, or discolored water.
  • Promptly wash skin with soap and water if you cannot avoid contact with water in the vicinity.
  • Seek medical care and notify your practitioner of the water body exposure if you experience adverse health effects after contact with the water body.

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