Massive fish kill on former golf course stinks up Winter Springs neighborhood

Neighbors complain of asthma, burning throats, city blames malfunctioning valve

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SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Jamie Miller says her Winter Springs neighborhood stinks so bad her son had an asthma attack caused by the stench.

“The smell induces sore throat, runny nose, it flares the asthma,” Miller said. “My son hasn’t had an attack in years and had one. The school almost called 911. And they’re not taking any of this seriously to get answers.”

Miller, who lives in the Highlands area of Winter Springs off Sheoah Boulevard, said thousands of fish suddenly died on Saturday in a large retention pond that used to be the City’s golf course almost a decade and a half ago.

The smell of rotting fish drifted across several neighborhoods.

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“I know several people have health issues, breathing issues, some people can’t even come out of their house because of it,” Miller said. “My grandchild can’t play outside because of it.”

Neighbors also worried about the other wildlife in the area - herons and bald eagles eating the dead fish.

City workers have since cleaned up most of the fish and called in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Seminole County and the Florida Department of Health to investigate.

“One of our Environmental Health Inspectors visited the area and confirms that the clean up has been done,” Mirna Chamorro said, Public Information Officer for the Florida Department of Health, Seminole County. “Our visit is a courtesy visit since we are not the enforcement authority.”

The City of Winter Springs posted an explanation for the fish kill on its Facebook page:

“Yesterday we received a call about a fish kill in a DEP permitted privately owned pond (previously the Winter Springs Golf Course),” the post read. “The treatment plant is currently offline for repairs. Engineers, city staff, and leadership have been working onsite since early yesterday morning to determine the cause. A malfunctioning valve channeled some residual, treated wastewater to the pond rather than the holding pond on the treatment plant property. Engineers have fixed the problem. Staff are cleaning up the dead fish and relocating living fish to other ponds. We are grateful to the residents who called to report the matter.”

Winter Springs Mayor Charles Lacey explained the pipe that runs under the former golf course is so old that current City staff wasn’t aware of it.

“It seems like last late last week it was a reclaimed water pipe that used to serve the golf course that has a leaky valve that has occurred in the past, so we’re learning as we go,” Lacey said. “And that leaky valve discharged into the pond on the private property of the [former] golf course reclaimed water. As most reclaimed water is, this has been treated with chlorine and apparently chlorine going into the pond did not sit well with the tilapia that were the pond.”

Lacey said a former employee immediately recognized the problem.

“It was a known problem valve over the years, and in that 14-year time frame we’ve had such turn over with City staff that there weren’t any presently employed who are familiar with the problem,” Lacey said. “And turns out we were educated by contact with a former public works employee who said, ‘Oh yeah, we know it’s that valve that always leaks,’ and sent our current staff off to find that valve.”

Neighbors said they didn’t believe the City’s explanation. The City’s Facebook post received more than 100 comments, most critical and skeptical.

“I don’t believe any of it,” Miller said. “The smell has been going on for... months.”

Lacey said the leak from the pipe has been stopped while the City evaluates how to replace the valve.

“There are a lot of opinions on lot of matters in the City these days, and it serves the purpose of some people to foment the discontent,” Lacey said. “DEP has been on site, so whether they trust what they heard from me and from the city is really a moot point because we will hear from the impartial body that comes out of Tallahassee as to what the truth of the matter is.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said crews were notified on Jan. 2 and found out approximately 10,000-15,000 gallons of partially treated effluent in the Highlands area of Winter Springs.

Effluent is liquid waste from sewage, industrial sites, or agricultural processes.

DEP staff said the effluent impacted a stormwater pond which resulted in the fish kill.

Crews will use a three-pronged approach:

  • Work with the facility to identify any release to ensure the release is stopped as quickly as possible
  • Gather information surrounding circumstances of the incident
  • Identify further corrective actions needed, this includes solutions to avoid future discharges and possible enforcement

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.