The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has determined a public hearing is necessary on a permit seeking to expand the capacity of a wastewater treatment plant on the Fort Morgan peninsula.
In January, Baldwin County Sewer Service (BCSS) filed an application to increase the capacity of the Fort Morgan Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) by 65 percent, from 1.2 million gallons per day to 2 million.
In a March 31 letter to principal manager Clarence Burke, Jeff Aul of ADEM’s Water Division requested BCSS pay a $8,450 public hearing fee, after determining “a public hearing is necessary as a result of requests received by the Department during the public notice period for the draft permit.” Aul noted the payment is due within 30 days and failure to pay “may result in denial of the permit application.”
With around 20,000 accounts and growing, Baldwin County Sewer Service is the largest privately owned sewer utility in the state. The Fort Morgan treatment plant is the southernmost of five plants operated by BCSS and if the application is approved, it will also be the largest. The plant uses a chlorine treatment method, depositing treated wastewater into percolation ponds on the property, where it is “injected” (percolates) into the groundwater. As such, ADEM regulates the facility as “Class V injection well.”
“The Underground Injection Control (UIC) program permits and manages compliance with wastewater treatment plants that inject treated sanitary waste into injection wells, such as percolation ponds, as the method of discharge,” ADEM spokesperson Lynn Battle explained. “These systems are covered under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program. Regardless of the program that a wastewater system is regulated under, the intent is to ensure that the discharges from the system are protective of the water quality standards, which are developed to be protective of human health and the environment.”
Battle confirmed the agency will hold a public hearing and a 30-day notice of the hearing will be issued once logistics are finalized. The public comment period ended Feb. 26, but it generated an impressive total of 95 comments from the relatively sparsely populated area around Little Lagoon, where respondents are primarily concerned about the potential for elevated nutrient levels, sewage spills and enforcement of permit restrictions and violations. They also question why BCSS wants to transport sewage from the middle of the county to the Fort Morgan plant, rather than using one of its more modern facilities farther inland.
Tom Eberly, a retired chemical engineer who has lived on the lagoon since 1976, wrote ADEM to bear witness to a “decline in the water quality” over the decades, along with increased algae blooms.
“It has become clear to me that the lagoon is high in harmful nutrients that are causing the algae blooms,” he wrote. “I can be convinced otherwise with sound data, but this data is hard to come by. Common sense tells me that the four BCSS percolation ponds discharging to groundwater that naturally flows to Little Lagoon — only a quarter-mile away — are probably causing the majority of our issues. In essence, Little Lagoon is their fifth percolation pond.”
Like many residents, Eberly asked for a public hearing to request more information about the plant, BCSS’s long-term plans, and what authority ADEM has to impose restrictions.
Dennis Hatfield, a geologist and president of approximately 275-member Little Lagoon Preservation Society, wrote ADEM to suggest those algae blooms could be the result of excessive nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen escaping from the Fort Morgan WWTP, adding water quality has likely been impacted by other pollutants “such as pharmaceuticals and various household chemicals.”
Hatfield noted the group is currently waiting on the results of a study from Dr. Alex Bebee, a hydrologist at the University of South Alabama, who is “comparing nutrient profiles in the shallow aquifer and flows to the lagoon from unpopulated areas, several golf courses, subdivisions, man-made canals and the sewage plant.”
Roberta Swann, director of the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program (MBNEP), confirmed in her own letter to ADEM that Bebee’s study was expected to be complete this month. Bebee’s study will analyze stable isotopes to discriminate between natural, fertilizer and wastewater sources of nutrients, she added.
“Preliminary results indicate anomalously high nutrient concentrations in shallow wells and surface water seeps south of the BCSS plant,” Swann wrote. “Based on this preliminary data, Dr. Bebee has been unable to eliminate the treatment plant’s effluent disposal ponds as potential sources of nutrients impairing Little Lagoon.”
Swann also requested a delay of the permit and “public input sessions.”
Charles and Mary Richardson, who live adjacent to the treatment plant, were among several residents who alerted ADEM to the fact BCSS built a new “sludge pond” on the property last year, one they claim is devoid of any stormwater control mechanisms.
“It would be the height of folly for ADEM to issue a permit that allows for the construction and operation of such a tortious facility,” the Richardsons wrote. “It would be clearly contrary to public policy and public interest.”
In yet another letter, Stephen and Trudy Hesse, who live a few hundred yards south of the treatment plant, called it a “dangerous and ridiculous proposal.”
“I have lived within 10 miles of Gulf Shores my whole life, vacationed on Little Lagoon for 20 years, before moving to Little Lagoon and have seen the effects to water quality and smell of the poo seeping up from the ground and pouring out of the French drains between our homes,” they wrote. “The algae blooms are massive at times. The danger to residential health is ever increasing.”
Charles Caban, a retired chemical and environmental engineer in Foley, suggested BCSS explore alternative treatment methods and locations, emphasizing Little Lagoon experiences little to no tidal flushing, as the pass is often choked with sand.
“Little Lagoon is a tremendously important natural asset for the community of Gulf Shores,” he wrote. “Consider the consequences if, during the warmest weather, the lagoon turns green and slimy or if fecal coliform levels rise to make human contact with the water to be dangerous.”
PUBLIC COMMENTS SUBMITTED TO ADEM REGARDING THE BCSS APPLICATION
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