Until they stink, overflow or back up, sewers are easy to ignore. Let someone see it or smell it, though, and everyone wants their sewers fixed yesterday.
In a fast-growing place like Baldwin County, money, politics and the environment can also influence public interest in sewer service. It may not be the first thing a future homeowner thinks about when looking at a house or talking to a builder, but the price of a tap fee or the pros and cons of sewers versus septic tanks is probably going to come up sooner or later. When a city runs its own sewer system, issues such as Fairhope’s use of utility revenues to pay for parts of city government inevitably grow political.
Nobody wants a wastewater treatment plant located near them. These days most Baldwin County residents are environmentally conscious enough to be leery of a new line running under a scenic river or worried about how many thousands of gallons will overflow with the latest heavy rainstorm.
Given the size of Baldwin County and its lack of a dominant city, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that a privately owned operator like Baldwin County Sewer Service could grow by seeking customers outside traditional city limits. Founded in 1998, BCSS now has 15,500 customers and is permitted for up to 20,000 through its treatment plants in Malbis, Lillian and Gulf Shores, according its website, www.baldwinsewer.com.
BCSS’s principal owner is Clarence E. Burke Jr., a man who wields considerable influence in Baldwin County. County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey is an employee of one of Burke’s myriad businesses and an Alabama Ethics Commission ruling forbids Dorsey from voting on anything pertaining to BCSS. Dorsey routinely recuses himself from voting on matters directly related to BCSS. But Burke and Dorsey are apparently close enough that Dorsey has actually held power of attorney over his employer since 2005.
BCSS was also one of the biggest donors to Commission President Chris Elliott during his 2014 race, pushing at least $7,500 to Elliott through a political action committee called Coastal PAC. Lagniappe has only been able to verify the $7,500 donation to Elliott through Coastal PAC. Another $6,000 came to him through the PAC, but its records with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office are incomplete so the initial source of those contributions are not clear.
Most BCSS customers are just to the west of Foley and along Fort Morgan Road. The service also covers part or all of Bay Minette, Daphne, Elberta, Fairhope, Foley, Gulf Shores, Loxley, Magnolia Springs, Magnolia Beach, Orange Beach, Perdido Beach, Point Clear, Robertsdale, Silverhill, Spanish Fort and Summerdale. In many of those places, residential growth in particular has expanded outside of city and planning jurisdiction limits, where BCSS can move into territory not served by a municipal system.
Sometimes, however, BCSS competes directly against municipal systems. For example, Daphne’s land-use regulations state if a particular piece of land can be serviced by Daphne Utilities and is contiguous to Daphne, the developer must apply for annexation, said City Councilman Ron Scott.
The Bellaton, Old Field and Dunmore subdivisions on Highway 181 are within Daphne city limits but aren’t contiguous and therefore receive sewer service from BCSS, not Daphne Utilities. Scott said that’s because Daphne Utilities’ sewer lines don’t go that far south right now.
Sometimes a little pressure doesn’t hurt either. Scott said a Mobile Infirmary urgent care center now under construction at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Highway 181 got a nudge from Daphne to use Daphne Utilities because the city earlier agreed to a request from Thomas Hospital to pledge a contribution to the new birthing center.
Fighting for service area
In Fairhope, BCSS is tangled up in litigation with the city over a sewer line serving about 96 customers to the west of Fish River. An agreement stemming from a years-old lawsuit allows Fairhope to pump sewage from the Fish River area into its own treatment plant, but that agreement expires as of mid-July. When Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson sent a letter to BCSS saying the agreement would not be renewed, BCSS responded by getting a right-of-way permit from the Baldwin County Commission to bore a new line under the river connecting 96 customers to its Malbis treatment plant.
And when Fish River residents found out about that, they started working to block a permit BCSS needs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with the project. The group has picked up considerable help from Cade Kistler, program director for Mobile Baykeeper. Kistler has advised citizens on how to write their own letters to the Corps asking for a separate hearing, and has weighed in against the project on behalf of Baykeeper.
“Allowing a sewage line under Fish River would create the potential for a massive sewage spill. It is well noted that Fish River is a flashy waterway, flooding forcefully during large rains. The potential for erosion of the riverbed is enormous and the proposed line’s depth of about [10 feet] below the bottom of the river would create a dangerous risk of breaking during floods causing a sewage spill into Fish River,” Baykeeper noted in its comments to the Corps.
“A large flood event, such as the ones that occurred on April 29, 2014, during Hurricane Danny, or during other major rain events has a very serious potential to expose and break or damage the sewage line.”
BCSS and Mayor Wilson agreed to talk about a new agreement, and BCSS is looking at alternatives to the underground line. The Corps has yet to reach a decision, while BCSS is awaiting a response from Fairhope, according Gerry McManus, controller for BCSS.
Also still pending is litigation involving BCSS, the East Central Baldwin County Water, Sewer and Protection Authority, the Baldwin County Commission and the towns of Summerdale and Robertsdale. Among the issues were whether ECB provided inaccurate information to the commission in 2002 and again in 2008 before the commission issued permits to ECB to serve areas already being served by other utilities, including BCSS. Water service, which BCSS does not provide, made up a large part of the litigation.
McManus said the case has yet to be resolved despite an Alabama Supreme Court ruling on some of the elements in 2016. It is also worth noting that BCSS purchased Summerdale’s sewer system.
It doesn’t smell that bad
The BCSS sewage treatment plant in Malbis is secluded and surrounded by grass fields on which the company’s own homemade fertilizer, biosolids and other treatments are applied. It’s also closer to Loxley than Malbis. Some 200 acres sit at the end of a road off Highway 90 marked only with a mailbox and a number.
Considering what’s going through the plant, the smell isn’t overwhelming and the equipment itself is clean. The plant dates back to 2006; even then, said McManus, it was clear the Highway 181 corridor would be heavily developed and a targeted market for BCSS.
Dave Flesch, operations manager, is proud of it. Pointing to an area of treated wastewater, he said, “You can see all the way to the bottom here, to the stainless steel.”
He shows off various monitoring systems, including one that pulls samples each hour for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Flesch explains how air and “bugs” of various types are mixed together at just the right consistency to allow for maximum separation and digestion of the untreated sewage.
The Malbis station has the capacity to handle the Fish River sewage and more, McManus said. Despite hard rain, a sidestream pond built so nothing can overflow currently holds a half-million gallons of sewage waiting to be treated. It has room for another 1.5 million gallons.
The company’s overall reputation has sometimes been questioned. It is known to charge more, particularly on tap fees, than municipal utilities companies. In 2007 it was fined $100,000 for contaminating the water in a Fairhope subdivision. A similar case in 2012 saw a worker tie a sewer line into the Belforest water system, forcing schools and restaurants to close and putting residents under a boil-water order until the entire system could be flushed out.
McManus knows such incidents hurt the company’s reputation. After the Belforest incident in 2012, BCSS revamped staff and procedures to ensure sewer lines could not get tied into water lines again.
As for cost, McManus points out private companies don’t benefit from utilities subsidies or grants. Good sewer service is still better than septic tanks, even if an initial tap fee is higher, he said.