Decatur Utilities to pay $123,000 fine in sewer overflow lawsuit settlement

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DECATUR, Ala. – Tens of millions of gallons of sewer water have overflowed over the past few years in the Decatur area. Thursday, Decatur Utilities agreed to pay a hefty fine as part of a legal settlement with the state of Alabama.

Nearly two years ago, Tennessee Riverkeeper said it sent a notice of intent to sue Decatur Utilities for sanitary sewer overflow violations. A month later, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and state Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit over the same issue.
Riverkeeper eventually joined the state suit in September 2019.

“It was originally a case that we had initiated and we intervened in the case because it’s so important to us to clean up the sewage in Decatur,” said Tennessee Riverkeeper’s David Whiteside. “Decatur is a very polluted city and sewage is a part of that. Cleaning it up is a big part in cleaning up Decatur overall.”

During a board meeting Thursday evening Decatur utilities agreed to pay a $123,000 civil fine.

According to the suit, it appears the fine is for the unpermitted discharge of pollutants. The suit lists a maximum of $25,000 per violation. However, it is unclear how many violations were considered and the amount agreed upon for each.

Decatur Utilities told News 19 on Friday that they, along with the Decatur City Council, have already approved a 10 year, $165 million plan to remedy the sanitary sewer system.

The utility company said it hopes to begin improvements by late spring, early summer.

Whiteside said he looks forward to holding the company accountable.

“That’s all we wanted, we wanted a sense of urgency,” he said. “Whenever we can speed that process up, it’s good for everyone, including the polluters. They’re slow to admit that sometimes but they drink this water as well.”

Decatur Utilities said the settlement agreement requires the company to conduct studies of its wastewater system and implement actions to minimize sewer overflows.

Decatur Utilities spokesperson Joe Holmes tells News 19 the company plans to cover the cost of the $165 million plan through increased customer fees.

DU Wastewater customers saw a $12 increase in their monthly access fee beginning February 2021. There will be a $6 per month increase in year two and $4 in year three. A total of $22 per month increase at that point. 

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office said it has no comment at this time.

The settlement has to go before a judge before it can be formally approved.

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