PERRY CO., AL (WSFA) - Concerned and frustrated Uniontown residents want to know what's next for their wastewater treatment system, which has been plagued by problems for years.
The clock is ticking for the city to make a decision about how they are going to repair the system, which has had nearly 400 environmental violations over the past seven years.
On Monday night, engineers went over the history of problems during a public hearing at the Uniontown City Hall auditorium.
"We want to address some of the information that's been circulated throughout the community and we wanted to inform the citizens of some of the things that we have done to upgrade our wastewater facility plant. We want to let them know what we have done and what's our way forward," said Uniontown Mayor Jamaal Hunter.
The town of about 2,500 people in southern Perry County has a small wastewater treatment system designed to treat an average of 525,000 gallons per day in its lagoon cells located near Robert C. Hatch High School.
The treated sewage is pumped almost four miles to a 70-acre sprayfield where it is land-applied by industrial sprinklers.
Sentell Engineering has been involved in the project for years and conducted Monday night's presentation. They said they wanted to make sure residents understood all of the details and facts regarding the long-standing issues.
According to Sentell, the town's sprayfield is not designed for the excess flow of water it has been experiencing and has been "short circuiting."
From 2003 to 2005, Uniontown started having a lot of sewage problems because its wastewater is supposed to get 28 days of treatment in their system, but it was going through the system too fast and then untreated or partially treated toxic sewage was going to the sprayfield.
The city has to regularly submit samples to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and those samples were not up to standards. So in 2005, ADEM asked the court to step in and have Uniontown fix their system. But the city didn't have the money to address the big issues so the problems persisted.
In 2008, a consent order was issued that mandated Uniontown bring in an engineering firm to design a solution to the problems.
In 2009, the design was completed by Sentell Engineering.
From 2009-2012, Uniontown worked to secure grant money to repair the problems.
In 2012, the funds were used to deepen lagoons and remove sludge and complete other improvements, re-establishing circulation into the lagoon system and allowing sewage to receive more treatment.
Engineers listed the city's nearly 400 environmental violations from over the past several years:
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2009-100 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2010-65 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2011- 109 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2012- 57 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2013- 21 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2014- 18 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2015- 9 violations
- style="margin-left: 40px;">2016- 16 violations
Officials say issues are still present because the lagoon is over stressed and with so much water going through the system, the bacteria needed to treat sewage is washing out of the system and needs two to three weeks to regrow.
The sprayfield continues to overflow into a nearby creek and rain only compounds the problem.
According to engineers, the wastewater collection system is the main issue. They showed pictures of problems with underground pipes across town.
In 2015, ADEM filed with the court to request that Uniontown cease and desist all sewer discharge, but a judge stayed the order for 90 days to receive an engineering report on how to fix the sewer system, knowing such a move would have a tremendous impact on the city and ultimately shut it down.
The city was given 90 more days to have another report done on what options are available and to provide a schedule of how long it will take to implement the options.
It is now up to the city to decide what option to go with and there's a small window of time for the selection to be made.
The Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health & Justice says residents have suffered exposure to partially or improperly treated sewage resulting in serious concerns about property value, public health, government accountability, and water quality. The group refers to the situation as a "decades-old sewage disaster."
"We already know our pipes are in bad shape. We don't someone to show us pictures of it. We understand all of that, but what's the solution? We know the situation is bad," said Ben Eaton, Uniontown resident and vice president of the organization. "We need a treatment plant. That's the only thing that will operate in this type of soil. Everything else sits above the ground."
According to the engineering report submitted in July to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) from Sentell, four options are on the table:
* Option # 1, build a wetland with the same discharge to Freetown Creek for around $11.4 million;
* Option #2, upgrade the lagoon and pipe sewage over 20 miles to the Black Warrior River for around $13.7 million;
* Option #3, build a mechanical plant able to discharge into Freetown Creek for around $12.6 million;
* OR Option #4, build a mechanical plant and pipe sewage over 20 miles to the Black Warrior River for around $16.4 million.
Those options were not discussed at Monday night's meeting. They will be outlined in the next public hearing. Officials say there will be several more meetings to bring residents up to speed on the matter.
"We're currently still in the process of reviewing information and data that will help us determine what will be the best alternative moving forward," the mayor said.
"We don't know exactly what our options are. None of them have been given to us by the city to review," Eaton added. We don't want a wetland. We would like to have what the city needs and that's a treatment plant. It's the only thing that will operate in this type of soil. Everything else sits above the ground."
Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health & Justice wants to see the following:
- a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant for Uniontown
- that responsible industries pay for their fair share of a new treatment plant
- no increases to water or sewer rates, no shutoffs to public water or sewer
- an investigation and accounting for the $4.8 Million USDA project
- that the city replace Sentell and hold them responsible for millions of wasted $$$$
- hire a new engineer based on a democratic, town-hall decision-making process
Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, said in a press release that the sprayfield continues to overflow into Freetown Creek on a regular basis "despite having spent $4.8 Million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) between 2012-15 to address issues."
"Clearly ADEM is not up to the task of holding Uniontown accountable to the law, as local residents and downstream neighbors are not being properly notified when sewage spills take place," he added.
Residents say the future of Uniontown depends on the city's decision on how to address sewage issues, including its growth and economic development.
"We need a lot of changes and you have to start from the bottom up. The wastewater treatment system will impact how economic development will operate. Businesses cannot come here if you don't have an operating sewer system," Eaton said.
The next public meeting will be scheduled in January. A date has not yet been set.