Decatur Utilities had sewer spills and overflows of more than 6 million gallons in 2019

Decatur
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DECATUR, Ala. -- Decatur Utilities reported to state regulators it had spills of more than 6 million gallons of sewage wastewater in 2019.

The utility submitted more than 40 required sewer overflow reports to regulators in 2019, including several in the past week.

WHNT News 19's review of the records continued into Monday evening. The early reported figure of more than 2 million gallons spilled was updated with several additional spill records from a rainy February, totaling more than 4.2 million gallons spilled beginning around Feb. 19.

Decatur Utilities pointed out in its February reports, there was, "11.25' of rainfall and flooding that occurred from 2-15-2019 through 2-24-2019. A State of Emergency has been declared due to the flooding."

The problems come amid an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Alabama Attorney General’s office that argues beginning in 2014 Decatur Utilities has had dozens of unpermitted discharges of pollutants. The lawsuit says the Attorney General is empowered to seek a maximum of fine of $25,000 per violation. The case is ongoing.

[Look up Decatur Utilities sewer spill reports --  permit number AL0048593]
NOTE: In your search: click on water, include Morgan County, and use permit number above.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, ADEM, requires a “sewer overflow event” report, “if there is an overflow, spill, release or diversion of wastewater from a sanitary sewer system” that either reaches state surface water or “may imminently and substantially endanger human health” based on public exposure through public or private water supplies or where human contact could occur.

Many of the reports cite heavy rainfall, both in February where the area was deluged with rainfall, and in the days before Christmas. The utility’s February reporting included at least a dozen spills of between 25,000 and 50,000 gallons of sewer wastewater and a spill of between 750,000 and 1 million gallons on Woodmont Drive beginning on Feb. 22.

The recent reports include substantial spills, including a 486,000-gallon spill from a manhole on the 2100 block of Central Parkway in Decatur on Dec. 22.

A review of the utility’s reports to ADEM shows an estimated 675,000 gallons in sewer water spills in December 2019.  Decatur Utilities reported similar problems from October to December 2018, though on a much smaller scale, about 80,000 gallons of wastewater spills.

Decatur Utilities Response

Decatur Utilities issued a statement to WHNT News 19 Monday afternoon, arguing that it is aggressively addressing the Sewer Overflow Events, SSOs.

The statement reads in part:

“First, it is important to define an SSO.  Several things, some of which are beyond DU’s control, can cause an SSO.  Inflow, infiltration, FOG (fats, oils, and grease), root intrusion, unforeseen mechanical failures, and other pipe defects can contribute to SSO’s. Inflow and infiltration, as it is known in the wastewater industry, is the result of groundwater and/or storm water runoff entering the sanitary sewer collection system by way of cracks, holes, loose joints, broken pipe, leaking manholes or other pipe defects due to system age. This is especially prevalent in older clay pipe that was installed in years past. Ultimately, an SSO is created when the capacity of the sanitary sewer pipe is exceeded due to one or more of the reasons identified above. Typically, most SSO’s occur during times of year when the ground is highly saturated with rainfall and/or during heavy storm events.”

The utility said it has invested more than $60 million over the past 10 years to improve its wastewater infrastructure:

“DU disagrees with any assertion that it is not aggressively addressing SSOs.  DU would like for our customers to know that we take any SSO very seriously, and as such, has invested over $60 million dollars within the past ten (10) years to improve wastewater system infrastructure and we remain fully committed to continued improvements of the wastewater collection system in an effort to reduce/eliminate future SSOs, while remaining mindful of our customers and sewer rates.”

Decatur Mayor Tab Bowling told WHNT News 19 Monday that he wanted to discuss the issue with Decatur Utilities' officials before responding to questions. Bowling had expressed concern about the spills in a Decatur Daily story on Sunday.

The spill reports indicate numerous instances where the sewer discharge spilled into Bakers Creek, or Flint Creek, including swimming areas.

The utility reports also regularly describe cleanup efforts, including applying lime for “stabilization” and pressure washing.

The reports also generally note that the public was informed via “robotic phone calls” in the event of a spill.

The utility’s statement described some of the work it has engaged in to improve its system:

“In February 2013, DU developed and presented a 10-year Wastewater System Improvement Plan (“Plan”) to ADEM aimed at improving DU’s aging wastewater utility infrastructure and eliminating SSOs. The first five years of the plan (2014-2018) focused on infrastructure improvements in areas susceptible to SSOs. The second five-year period (2019-2023) was focused on improvements to the wastewater collection system. DU’s commitment and implementation of the Plan resulted in the replacement of six (6) sanitary sewer lifts stations:  LS2 Riverview, LS4 Country Club Road, LS8 Stratford Road, LS12 Mallard Fox, LS13 Flint North, and LS14 Flint South.  In addition to these pump station replacements, major collection system improvements were made in Basin 2, Basin 4, Basin 8, and Basin 6 (Wimberly Drive and the Beltline).  There was also significant pipe and manhole rehabilitation/replacement completed in other areas within the city during this timeframe.

“In May 2019, DU provided an update to ADEM on the successful implementation of the Plan and our continued commitment to eliminate SSOs within our sanitary sewer collection system.”

Updated at 5:50 p.m. to include additional spill records