The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS) is the latest local utility hit with a lawsuit over unpermitted sewer discharges, according to court records. A hearing scheduled last week was postponed, but a complaint filed in June 2020 indicates the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) found MAWSS had violated the limitations of its permits at both the Clifton C. Williams and Wright Smith Jr. wastewater treatment plants numerous times between 2015 and 2019.
The complaint lists dozens of spills at each facility, totaling millions of gallons of untreated wastewater, alleging MAWSS “caused or allowed” unpermitted discharges, while reports “indicate that [ADEM], the public and/or the county health department were not notified of the SSOs [sanitary sewer overflows] as required.” Further, prosecutors at the Alabama Attorney General’s Office allege MAWSS submitted some SSO reports later than required.
The AG’s Office filed similar suits against Daphne Utilities in 2017 and the city of Fairhope and 2020. Daphne Utilities has since settled its case, agreeing to pay fines of over $100,000 and take remedial actions. A hearing in Fairhope’s case is scheduled for May.
Last week, MAWSS Assistant Director Bud McCrory acknowledged the lawsuit, saying the utility works diligently to stay within the parameters of its permits. Without addressing the claims specifically, McCrory said many SSOs are caused by factors beyond their control, such as grease blockages, stormwater infiltration and breakages.
“I’ll never sit here and tell you [SSOs are] a part of what we do because we want to prevent every SSO we can — not one SSO is acceptable,” he said. “We’re not going to comment on that right now, but we’re working through that litigation with the state to come up with a settlement.”
McCrory will take the reins of MAWSS at the end of the month, upon the retirement of Director Charles Hyland, who has served in that capacity since 2013. McCrory said within the past three years, the utility has made investments in the basins of both wastewater treatment plants to alleviate problems with stormwater intrusion, including $17 million for the construction of two attenuation tanks on Three Mile Creek. Another $18 million was allotted to replace sewer trunk lines along Three Mile Creek.
MAWSS has steadily raised rates for its roughly 100,000 customers over the past decade, most recently passing a four-year increase in 2019. As a result, MAWSS customers were originally levied a 6.5 percent rate increase this year, followed by a 4 percent increase in 2022 and another 4 percent increase in 2023. But as the board approved the 2021 budget in December, it lowered this year’s increase to 3 percent to account for the financial effects of the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of reasoning that goes into the rates we charge,” he said, noting a third-party cost of service study was conducted before the increases. The board also approved a 20-year master plan for infrastructure improvements in 2019, and the recent construction represents the first phase of the plan.
McCrory said the utility is constantly evaluating its financial needs, but additional rate increases, if warranted, would have to be approved by the City Council-appointed board of directors.
“Our outgoing director is a great mentor to me,” McCrory said. “He has put this utility in a great place. We have a plan for rehabilitation and we’re going to continue to provide a quality service while meeting all of our regulatory requirements. My goal is to try to make us as efficient as we can be in all we do and by doing that, it can help us control rates.”
This story was updated to correct the percentage of rate increase MAWSS customers were levied in 2021.
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