Mobile Baykeeper has joined eight conservation groups across the state in a petition urging Alabama’s Environmental Management Commission to clarify and expand the way the residents are notified about sewage spills and overflows.

Along with Baykeeper, the petition was submitted by the Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, Friends of Hurricane Creek, Little River Waterkeeper and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

The push for a better notification system follows a year that saw several incidents related to sewage overflow, including one in Northport that resulted in 4 million gallons of sewage flowing into the Black Warrior River last July.

However, the gaggle of environmental organizations claim the overflow in Northport wasn’t effectively broadcast to the public, especially given the fact it affected a popular waterway just before a Fourth of July holiday weekend — leaving many unknowingly exposed to sewage.

“Other than Northport’s lightly followed Facebook page, there was no public notification of the large-scale spill into the river nor was there anyone staffing the city’s 24-hour emergency hotline who could tell the public about the spill or its consequences to public health,” Baykeeper said in its press release Wednesday.

A man overflows near Three Mile Creek in Mobile County. (Mobile Baykeeper)

Though Northport’s spill gained more attention, Mobile Bay saw its own sewage spills and overflows last year, and has already recorded two so far in 2017.

Lift stations in Robertsdale and Daphne recorded overflows after heavy rainfall in early January — sending between 10,000 and 100,000 gallons of sewage into Rock Creek and Yancey Branch, respectively.

Then in February, approximately 200,000 gallons of sewage being discharged into D’Olive Creek after a rented bypass failed in Daphne. In both instances, the Baldwin County Health Department urged residents to “exercise caution if using [those] bodies of water for recreational purposes” and to “thoroughly cook any fish or seafood” caught in those areas.

Both incidents were also picked up by at least some local media outlets due, at least in part, to those public notices. However, the environmental groups that signed Wednesday’s petition believe more needs to be done to get that type information to more people faster.

They’re arguing that citizens have “a fundamental right to know” when waterways are unsafe for swimming, fishing and other recreation so “they can protect themselves and their families from serious consequences.”

Baykeeper Executive Director Casi Callaway said all wastewater treatment facilities in Alabama are required to notify the public “immediately” after any sewage spill is detected. However, she also said there aren’t currently regulations that clarify exactly what that means, which can cause citizens in many cases to be unaware a spill has occurred at all.

A man overflows near Dog River in Mobile County. (Mobile Baykeeper)

“Millions of gallons of sewage can spill into a local waterway, and unless citizens happen to follow the county health department page or tune into the nightly news at the right time, they are completely unaware of this threat to their health,” Callaway said. “It is critical to have a consistent notification process to ensure citizens can protect their health from sewage spills. That is the purpose of this petition.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, overflows pose a substantial public health threat to citizens because sewage can expose residents to disease-causing pathogens, including protozoa, bacteria, and viruses that can lead to infectious diseases like hepatitis, gastrointestinal disorders, dysentery and swimmer’s ear.

Other forms of bacteria commonly found in sewage have been known to cause typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Not only that, a person can also be impacted from ingesting fish or shellfish contaminated by those sewage discharges.

Alabama law allows “any person” to petition the Environmental Management Commission to engage in rulemaking. Granting a petition for rulemaking does not mean that a proposed rule will be adopted, just that public comment will be solicited and a decision on whether to adopt the proposal will be reached.

“With another recreation season almost upon us, these petitioners look forward to working productively with the Commission to ensure that the petition process yields the strongest, most comprehensive public notification rule possible,” Eva Dillard, staff attorney for Black Warrior Riverkeeper, added.