DECATUR, Ala - It's a part of everyday life that generally goes unnoticed unless something goes wrong. Decatur Utilities has reported more than 6 million gallons of sewer overflows this year. And some residents are concerned.
"It's not healthy," said Cesar Soto.
What he's talking about is this manhole down the street from his house that recently overflowed with sewer water during heavy rains.
In February of this year, more than 1.6 million gallons of wastewater overflowed from that manhole on Sixth Avenue SW. It happened again just last week when there was an overflow of more than 22,000 gallons.
"They come and they place a sign that says hey stay away from it, avoid direct contact with the liquid," Soto said.
He said he has seen the signs placed by Decatur Utilities warning residents about the overflow. But staying away from it can be hard to do when the affected manhole is smack-dab in the middle of the road.
"Because you got to drive through it and some of the neighbors who have to walk to go to the store have to go through it," he explained.
According to Decatur Utilities, crews pressure-washed this area after the overflow.
Wastewater can contain disease-causing pathogens, bacteria, and worms according to the EPA. Exposure can result in stomach flu, upper respiratory infections, and even life-threatening illnesses.
"Untreated sewage can cause dysentery, a lot of my friends in Decatur were shocked about that. We think of the Oregon Trail and that's an 18th-century problem, not a 21st-century problem," said David Whiteside, executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper.
The organization sued Decatur Utilities over sewer overflows, which are also referred to as 'SSO's. They began tracking the number of SSO's through the Utilities' required reporting to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) website.
"Admits that these problems have been persistent and ongoing for years," Whiteside said.
Decatur Utilities provided a statement to WHNT detailing a 10-year plan to ADEM in 2013 to improve wastewater infrastructure. The utility said it has invested $60 million over the past 10 years to improve its wastewater infrastructure.
But Whiteside said the lawsuit aims to speed up that process.
"We're reasonable. We know they can't replace every sewage line in Morgan County to fix the problem so they need to look at the hot spots, the areas that these overflows are occurring most frequently," Whiteside said.
And the families on Sixth Avenue?
"It's a problem that should be taken care of," Soto said.
They said they just want the overflows to stop.
The Attorney General's Office has joined the lawsuit the Tennessee Riverkeeper filed. According to the AG's suit, beginning in 2014 Decatur Utilities has had dozens of unpermitted discharges of pollutants. The lawsuit said the Attorney General is empowered to seek a maximum fine of $25,000 per violation.