Health

Judge orders Uniontown to stop fighting $31M sewer fix

A $31 million project to repair the Black Belt city of Uniontown’s failing sewer system is poised to move forward despite objections from the city’s mayor and other local officials that the plan will benefit local industries more than Uniontown residents and the city itself.

A Perry County district court judge on Saturday ordered the city of Uniontown to sign over control of its water pollution permit to a newly created independent water and sewer board to allow the project to move forward.

Uniontown Mayor Christopher Jones said he would prefer to see the money spent to build a wastewater treatment plant in Uniontown rather than pipe the waste about 20 miles to Demopolis for treatment, which is the current plan.

“Uniontown itself will prosper better with a treatment facility built in the town,” Jones said.

He said he feels the plan is configured to benefit the industries in the city – including a landfill, a cheese plant and a catfish processing facility – more than the town’s residents.

“The funding was put here for Uniontown,” Jones said. “It was meant for Uniontown’s citizens, and I feel that the citizens are not getting a good shake out of the deal.”

The completed project will likely make waste disposal easier for those industries, though details of the plan have not been made public. Currently Arrowhead Landfill uses trucks to send its leachate – liquid waste from the mountains of household garbage – to Demopolis for treatment, a step that may no longer be necessary once the project is completed. Southeastern Cheese currently uses its own sprayfield and treatment system to dispose of waste locally but could potentially use the new sewer system to send waste to Demopolis instead.

Jones said Uniontown residents will face higher water bills that could be a struggle for a community where the median household income is $17,000, and 51% of the city’s population is living in poverty, according to U.S. Census data. He said the independent water board has not provided the city with details about the plan or responded to the city’s questions about the project.

“They have already said the rates are going to go up but they don’t know how high,” Jones said.

Uniontown Mayor Chris Jones Sarah Whites-Koditschek

But the court order will now compel Jones to sign over the city’s water permit, giving control of the decisions about the system to the new water board.

The project is being funded by a $23.4 million emergency grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and more than $7 million in matching funds from local governments and industry. The USDA grant required the creation of an independent water and sewer board to operate and oversee the system.

Ownership of the city’s water and sewer assets had already been transferred to the board, according to court records, making the transfer of the permit the last step in transferring authority over the system’s water system to the new board.

The ruling by Perry County Circuit Court Judge Donald McMillan Jr. found Uniontown in contempt of court for its refusal to sign over the permit to the new water board after the city had been ordered to stop the wastewater releases in 2015.

“The willful and continuing failure or refusal of Uniontown to transfer its [water pollution] permit to the [Water Works and Sewer Board] has caused significant delays in remediation of its sewer system,” the ruling said. “Thus, unpermitted discharges and excessive effluent limits have continued, causing the citizens of Uniontown, the neighboring public, and the environment to endure further exposure to pollutants which are a significant threat to their health and safety.”

Jones, who took office in November, said he plans to sign over the permit because the city cannot afford the $1,000 per day penalty for not complying with the ruling.

Why it’s needed

The city of Uniontown’s sewer system has been a shambles for decades.

The aging network of pipes meant to take the city’s wastewater away to a treatment lagoon and sprayfield are riddled with leaks and holes, allowing a deluge of rainwater to flood in and sewage to flood out during storms. The influx of rain overloads the city’s treatment lagoons, causing untreated or partially treated sewage to continuously overflow crumbling earthen dams into Freetown Creek.

A $4.8 million USDA project in 2012 and 2013 to fix the system did not deliver the desired results. The contractor on that project, Sentell Engineering, made improvements to deepen and widen the treatment lagoons and installed UV sterilizers and a screen system to catch solid particles at the ponds, and spent about $1 million inspecting and repairing the worst leaks in the collection system.

The company said it did the best it could with the funding available on that project, but the leaking collection pipes allowed rainwater to flood the system, making the UV lamps inoperable and flooding the lagoons anyway.

Sentell will also be the contractor on the new project to pump waste to Demopolis, while Jones and others have urged the USDA to select another firm because of the city’s prior experience with Sentell.

According to documents from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, leaks in the system have been “ongoing” and “continuous” since 2015.

Saturday’s court ruling was the culmination of years of legal action from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to force Uniontown to stop its releases of untreated sewage.

ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said the ruling was a positive step towards fixing the problem.

“The court ruling is good news for the people of Uniontown,” LeFleur said in an emailed statement. “When all other available enforcement options to protect human health and the environment were exhausted by ADEM, in 2015 the Circuit Court ordered the city to refrain from releases in violation of ADEM’s NPDES [water pollution] permit. The problems continued unabated because no funding or viable solution was available.

“As a result of years of work by USDA and many others, a viable plan was developed. The ruling clears the way to begin implementing that plan to address the serious wastewater treatment problems Uniontown has been experiencing for more than a decade. ADEM is pleased with this action.”

No local control

Ben Eaton, a Perry County Commissioner and Uniontown resident who advocated for Uniontown to get its own treatment plant for years before he was elected to the commission, said he’s not dead-set against the plan to pipe waste to Demopolis, but that the current plan is not the best one for Uniontown.

The Perry County Commission is not involved in the project.

“I don’t have a problem with it going to Demopolis other than [control] is being taken away from the city,” Eaton said. “We’ll have no control, we’ll have no say, we will be left at the mercy of Demopolis.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers, author of the book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret,” who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for her work highlighting wastewater problems and environmental injustice in Alabama’s Black Belt, said it’s a problem when local communities are excluded from decisions about how to fix their infrastructure issues, when they’re the ones who have to deal with the results when those systems fail.

“I feel that whenever these companies design systems that fail, they should have to pay,” Flowers said. “Then that will make them put a little bit more money into research and design and will also include local communities in the solution.

“Because how can you have a real solution without buy-in from the local community? And that’s not happening in Uniontown.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers

Catherine Coleman Flowers (Photo Courtesy MacArthur Foundation

Flowers said Uniontown, where the population is 91% Black, is the poster child for environmental injustice. Industries that move there often do so because the land is cheap, and the perception is that environmental impacts of those industries are more easily tolerated.

The Arrowhead Landfill is permitted to accept refuse from across the country and took in 4 million tons of coal ash waste from the 2008 TVA Kingston spill, spurring local protests. The cheese plant has also generated complaints and lawsuits from local residents over odors and waste issues.

“Uniontown is a Disney World of environmental justice issues,” Flowers said. “The community has been ignored for years, and they have tried to make it a dumping ground for coal ash have sited plants there that have contaminated the area.

“Clearly it is an example of what happens when local voices have been silenced in making those decisions.”

Jones acknowledged the need to fix the city’s sewer system but compared the plan to send waste to Demopolis to replacing a leaking kitchen sink with one that was built into the floor and not the countertop.

“You can wash your dishes, you don’t have any water leaking over your floor anymore, you’ve got a brand new sink,” he said. “But the inconvenience is you’re going to have to wash your dishes on the floor from now on.”

Most Related Links :
usnewsmail Governmental News Finance News

Source link

Back to top button