Untreated Overflow

In affluent and poor communities alike, untreated sewage overflows into streams as many as 30 times a day across Alabama. Improvements to wastewater utilities usually only follow a problem, including a trip to the hospital after a summer swim.

“I want to make sure that the area where my children play and friends come over to play is a safe environment,” says Reily Murphy — one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Fairhope Utilities, which serves one of the state’s most affluent cities. Photo by Matthew Coughlin

In early 2018, Reily Murphy, a Fairhope resident living on Fly Creek, found himself involved in a lawsuit for the first time in his life.

Concerned about an antiquated and over-capacity sewage system overseen by Fairhope Utilities, which services the Fly Creek neighborhood, Murphy joined other residents in opposing a new apartment complex along Fly Creek they said would stress the system even more.

Murphy told Mobile Bay Magazine earlier this year that his interest was personal, stemming from the day his then-4-year-old son hit his leg on the pier while playing in the creek. Two days later, running a fever and with redness spreading on his injured leg, the youngster was admitted to the hospital, Murphy recounted in the magazine story.

After a time, his son recovered, but the businessman had had enough.

“They couldn’t determine whether or not it was the water that did it,” Murphy told the magazine, which detailed a 2017 spill at a Fairhope Utilities wastewater lift station that put more than 260,000 gallons of raw sewage into Fly Creek. “But I felt certain that was the case.”

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In its 2015 “Report Card for Alabama’s Infrastructure,” the American Society for Civil Engineers estimated that 65 percent of Alabama’s infrastructure for taking care of sewage and wastewater has “reached the end of its useful life, resulting in broken, cracked, clogged and disjointed pipes.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with those findings. Stakeholders from wastewater utilities systems to those who build them to engineers to customers all say that Alabama’s stormwater and wastewater infrastructure — which earned a C- grade on the ASCE’s every-six-year-report card — needs some help.

“The biggest takeaway is that effective operation, maintenance, expansion and improvement of Alabama’s wastewater infrastructure is critical to our public health — and that this requires funding,” says Scott Sheumaker, project manager in the utilities division of construction company Brasfield & Gorrie’s Birmingham office.

The ASCE study says that about 250 utility service providers are collecting, distributing and treating tens of millions of gallons of waste per day, but because of aging infrastructure and stress on the existing systems, sanitary sewer overflows are a primary concern, resulting in “untreated sewage overflow into Alabama’s creeks and streams.”

These overflows — as many as 30 a day reported during wet weather — can occur anywhere, in treatment facilities big and small and in affluent and poorer areas alike.

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency reported “significant” spills at 16 major industrial and municipal sewage facilities in Alabama: Tuscaloosa, Blountsville, Wilsonville, Enterprise, Tallassee, Dothan, Winfield, Birmingham, Selma, Atmore, Millbrook, Sheffield, Clanton, Saraland, Ozark and Lafayette.

They’re all regulated by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which recognizes the infrastructure problem and says it’s not unique to Alabama.

“Consistent with systems across the nation, many wastewater systems in Alabama are in need of infrastructure upgrades and the funding to perform these improvements,” says M. Lynn Battle, chief of ADEM’s Office of External Affairs.

The ASCE report card also addresses community septic systems that can be problematic, especially in the state’s Black Belt counties, where low-permeability soils require expensive systems to work properly. Many people in the region can’t afford these systems. (Sen. Doug Jones has co-sponsored legislation in Washington that includes grants to improve these systems.)

ASCE is hoping to educate the public with its report card, says Mark Barnett, an engineering professor at Auburn University and a member of ASCE’s public policy committee.

“The ultimate goal is public awareness of the importance of infrastructure, the state of infrastructure, and that we’re needing to invest a significant amount of money into infrastructure,” he says. “If wastewater infrastructure fails, you have water that’s not treated properly that ultimately will be discharged through the environment. That could harm people that are drinking it downstream or trying to swim in it or fish in it.”

ASCE estimates that proper repair and maintenance on stormwater and wastewater systems across the state are $3 billion to $5 billion annually. Infrastructure repair would most probably result in higher sewer rates for the consumer, a cost that has historically been low in Alabama.

“Water and wastewater in Alabama are literally dirt cheap,” Barnett says. “It’s by far the cheapest regular monthly bill I pay.”

Because of the high costs involved, the ASCE report card says, maintenance operations for stormwater and wastewater systems is “almost 100 percent reactionary,” meaning problems are fixed after they occur. But that could be changing.

“We’re a very proactive water company,” says Monica Allen, spokesperson for the Mobile Area Water & Sewer System. “We have about 90,000 customers, and in Alabama, that’s large. We recognize that this is a problem. It’s not a new problem. It’s just gotten to a point now that we can’t keep patching.”

MAWWS is launching a campaign called Keep Water Working, which addresses both water issues and sewage issues. It will result in hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements, including replacing aging pipes in a system that includes 3,200 miles of sanitary sewer lines. “It may be $1 billion dollars when we’re done with it,” Allen says.

The Mobile Area Water & Sewer System has long been in a battle to keep overflow at bay. A recently announced campaign includes hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements, including replacing aging pipes in a system that includes 3,200 miles of sanitary sewer lines. Costs could reach $1 billion. Photo by Mike Kittrell

In August, Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson proposed a new stormwater management fee. Prevention of stormwater from overflowing into the sanitary sewer system is critical to preventing sewage spills, especially in Mobile, which frequently ranks as the rainiest city in the U.S.

Like other systems, Jefferson County “historically has had a pattern of not necessarily investing in sanitary sewer infrastructure until a crisis kind of developed,” says David Denard, head of the county’s environmental services department. “We’ve tried to move out of that cycle, and we’ve invested in an asset-management system to prioritize where we spend money first.”

The ASCE report card points to innovative upgrades to the sewage plant in Fairhope, which is in the midst of an $11 million upgrade to its system — including a filter system that has only been implemented in 200 systems nationwide. “This will reduce the nutrient load on plant discharges, helping improve the water quality in Mobile Bay,” the report card says.

The ASCE says that utility systems throughout the state are upgrading treatment plants, including “better filtration systems, more efficient controls systems, increased treatment capacity and improved water quality.”

Brasfield & Gorrie has been building and upgrading water treatment plants for more than four decades, Sheumaker says.

“These projects have been driven by factors such as regulatory compliance, new development/new service connections and the replacement of facilities or processes that have reached or exceeded their intended useful life,” he says.

Sheumaker points to work Brasfield & Gorrie has done for Jefferson County to replace aging equipment to increase the reliability of the Cahaba River Wastewater Treatment Plant and in Prattville to expand wastewater facilities.

“We have also participated in projects that result in lower cost of operation for our clients due to the implementation of more advanced technologies,” he says. “All these efforts are focused on improving overall public health and environmental stewardship.”

ASCE’s report says it’s going to take more reparation of aging infrastructure to raise Alabama’s grade, and it points to other actions that will help:

• Finding additional resources and funding for daily operation.
• Increasing workforce training and improving technological advances.
• Increasing enforcement and education.
• Supporting a structure that encourages sewer rate structures that provide revenue for maintenance and repair.
• Raising awareness of the cost of water and reflecting that in rates.
• Recognizing that a functional storm and sewer infrastructure will help support economic development in the state.

The bottom line for Murphy, as he told Mobile Bay Magazine, is the health and well-being of his family.

“I want to make sure that the area where my children play and friends come over to play is a safe environment,” he says.

Alec Harvey, Matthew Coughlin and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn, Coughlin in Pensacola and Kittrell in Mobile.

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