FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- One of the worst raw-sewage spills in state history closed beaches in three counties yesterday, forcing people from waterways and contaminating one of the nation's most sensitive estuaries.
Health officials warned people to stay out of the ocean in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties and out of the Indian River, and to avoid eating fish from the river until further notice.
It will be weeks before authorities can determine the full effect of the spilling of 6 million to 7 million gallons of untreated sewage, scientists and health officials say. They have begun testing water up and down the Treasure Coast near the spill site.
The spill was not expected to affect the coast farther south, though some beaches in Palm Beach County are closed because of polluted runoff from Hurricane Irene.
The problem began late Monday after workers lost a two-day battle to stem the flow of sewage from a broken 36-inch main line in the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority Wastewater Treatment Plant, just off the Fort Pierce Inlet. The spill was stopped midafternoon yesterday.
There has been only one larger raw-sewage spill in the area in recent history -- 20 million gallons in Palm Beach County in September 1990. There was a 6 million gallon spill in Miami in 1991.
"As long as there is any threat of fecal coliform bacteria people should avoid contact with the water or fish from that water," said Gary Roderick, southeast Florida regional environmental administrator for the Department of Environmental Protection.
Fecal coliform causes stomach disorders, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
"We have no idea how far it has spread, or how much contamination there might be so we have to err on the side of caution," said Diane Walgren, administrator of the St. Lucie County Health Department.
The pipe sprung a small leak late Saturday night. Workers battled the leak over the weekend, but, because of Hurricane Irene, there was a shortage of big portable pumps capable of handling such a load.
The hole grew steadily.
"Around 3: 30 p.m. Monday, the leak had widened to the extent that they could no longer control it with pumps," said Brad Russell, regional waste-water program manager for the state environmental agency.
The spewing sewage threatened to undermine the plant's main control room. Faced with the potential loss of the entire system, Russell said, workers had to shut down the line and divert raw sewage into the nearby river.
Given that the problem could have become worse, Bass said, he had no criticism of that decision or of how the plant dealt with the crisis. The iron pipe was only 15 years old and should not have failed, he said. The entire Fort Pierce sewage system was heavily infiltrated with water from Irene.
The Indian River is stressed from millions of gallons of polluted fresh water from Hurricane Irene.
"We already have a crisis situation," said Brian LaPointe, a research scientist with Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. "With a raw sewage spill like this, a crisis could go to a catastrophe."
The Indian River -- a slow-moving, shallow lagoon between the mainland and the Treasure Coast's barrier islands -- is home to a diverse community of plant and marine animal life unseen anywhere else in the United States, LaPointe said. The estuary is the spawning ground for millions of fish and crustaceans and hundreds of manatees.
Oxygen levels in the contaminated water will probably go way down, LaPointe said, because it is used up by bacteria digesting the waste. That, in turn, could cause fish kills.
A potential long-term effect of the spill: The heavy load of nutrients would release the equivalent of a super fertilizer, causing a "harmful algae bloom" that will smother other plant life in the river.
Residents and tourists were disappointed.
"I was looking forward to swimming in the cove and partying as usual," Patricia Koons, 28, said as she stood near her car at Fort Pierce Beach. "What's the fishing going to be like? What will this do to tourism?"
Down the road, Stacey Hampton, owner of Capt. Jim's Bait and Tackle, felt the pinch of bad news. "If nobody's fishing, nobody's buying bait, nobody's making money and nobody's happy."
It will probably take five to seven days before parts of the waterway are reopened, officials said last night.