Down along Fish River, residents made it clear the other night they don’t want a sewer line running under it.
“We’re here tonight because we were damn well upset,” said Dick Sute, a retired vice president of Volkert Inc. and co-organizer of what was intended to be an informal meeting of residents to discuss the proposed sewer line.
When elected officials and representatives of Baldwin County Sewer Service turned up March 15, they got an earful from about 50 people who crowded into the Marlow Fish River fire station. As happened about 15 years ago, the interests of developers, landowners, private business and public government are again clashing over a quickly growing area of Baldwin County.
On the west side of Fish River, off Ferry Road near County Road 32, the privately run BCSS serves 96 customers who are linked into a Fairhope city sewer line. On the east side, off the Honey Road boat launch, BCSS serves customers with lines that run to its Malbis wastewater treatment plant.
As a result of litigation dating to 2002, BCSS and Fairhope agreed the west side customers could be served by BCSS lines through Fairhope’s wastewater treatment for 10 years, until the agreement expires on July 12 of this year. The agreement could have been extended, but in December Fairhope notified BCSS it would shut off the service and both parties would have to cap their lines by the July date.
BCSS reacted by making plans to run a 10-inch main under Fish River and connect the west side to the east side. It recently received permission to use the county right of way and is now seeking the necessary permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, State Lands Division.
The residents, concerned about what could happen in the event of an underground pipeline leak in the Weeks Bay Watershed, want to know why they’re just now finding out about all this.
“We’re bringing this to a boil,” said Mike Wilson, who organized the meeting with Sute. “That’s what this meeting is for.”
Not the first time
In 2002, BCSS sued the city of Fairhope, its planning commission and numerous elected and appointed officials in federal court, alleging violations of antitrust law including conspiracy to deny the private company the right to install sewer lines in the city’s subdivision and planning jurisdictions. One claim was that at least some subdivision developers were told their applications would not be approved if they did not tie into the city sewer system.
BCSS also claimed private testing of water samples along Fish River showed levels of fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria above what the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Alabama Department of Environmental Management considered safe for human contact. BCSS attributed the contamination to the widespread use of septic tanks in the area.
That suit also reveals this isn’t the first time BCSS has tried to go under the Fish River. In 2002, the company was seeking an Army Corps of Engineers permit to do just that, and had notified Fairhope of its intent to extend its service west of the Fish River in competition with the city system.
In another lawsuit, filed a year earlier in Baldwin County Circuit Court, a private developer called Elite Development had sued Fairhope’s Planning Commission alleging it was denied subdivision plat approval because it intended to use BCSS instead of the city’s sewer system. BCSS was added later as a party to that lawsuit.
Both lawsuits were eventually settled, but not until 2007. According to a letter from Matthew McDonald, an attorney hired by Fairhope to review pending litigation, Fairhope and BCSS entered an agreement on July 13, 2007, stating the city would provide wastewater treatment services to BCSS until July 12, 2017.
In that letter, dated Dec. 20 of last year, McDonald wrote that while there was a provision to extend the agreement, “please be advised that the city does not intend, and will not agree, to extend the agreement.”
BCSS officials say once access to Fairhope’s wastewater treatment is cut off, they must go under the river to serve their west side customers. A statement to customers on its website says in part, “BCSS is abiding by all guidelines and permitting requirements, and we sincerely care about preventing any environmental impacts. The sewer spill risk in the river is minimal. It would take a very significant storm surge and scour to cause a problem with the new sewer line, and cutoff valves are available if a natural disaster were to occur.”
BCSS Controller Gerry McManus told Lagniappe his company has only one sewer line running under a body of water now, and that is the Intracoastal Waterway. The company has never had a problem with it, he said.
News to Fish River
Fish River residents say they knew nothing about it until after the Baldwin County Commission approved right-of-way access for the project on March 7. The vote was 3-0; Commissioner Tucker Dorsey did not vote and reportedly left the meeting room during discussion on the item because he has business ties to BCSS.
County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott attended the residents’ meeting and was confronted by residents who wanted to know how the commission could have approved the right-of-way access without letting them know.
Elliott said such matters are usually routine and often don’t come up for a separate vote. The county is obligated to authorize access to rights of way for utilities, communications services and the like if the applicant complies with regulations. In the case of the sewer line, Elliott said he separated the item on the agenda for a separate vote so that people would know about it, and he notified one Mobile TV news station so the matter would receive coverage.
In addition, the BCSS request and accompanying documents were discussed in an earlier work session and were available online at the county’s website, Elliott noted.
However, the title of the item on the agenda referred in part to a “Sewer Force Main Installation on an Unmaintained Right-of-Way off Ferry Road and Boat Launch at Honey Road.” “Fish River” did not appear in the title.
Elsewhere one of the documents says, “This proposed installation will carry BCSS sewage from the west side of Fish River to the east side of Fish River at the boat launch at Honey Road.” It doesn’t say, “under the river.”
Elliott said he invited both BCSS representatives and Fairhope Mayor Karin Wilson to meet with residents in an effort to get everyone together and see if there was another way to handle the issue. Those remarks didn’t sit well with Mike Wilson, who told Lagniappe earlier Wednesday BCSS had not been invited by the organizers.
“Don’t hijack this meeting, Chris,” Mike Wilson said.
Said Elliott, “Should we have had this meeting six weeks ago? Yes.”
BCSS was a major contributor to Elliott’s campaign for county commissioner, donating money both directly and to a political action committee that in turn donated to Elliott.
As for Mayor Wilson, who took office in November, she said she didn’t know much more than residents did.
The capacity of some parts of Fairhope’s sewer system has been questioned and was one of the reasons for a temporary moratorium on new subdivision lots. Also, one of the new mayor’s first actions was to hire an outside attorney, McDonald, to review all pending litigation in hopes of containing attorneys’ fees.
During his research, the mayor said, McDonald came across the sewer agreement which was near expiration. “This was the end of a 10-year lawsuit between Baldwin County Sewer and the city of Fairhope,” she said.
The mayor said she didn’t know about the Fish River issue until the residents learned of it, and repeatedly said no one involved with the issue, including BCSS, ever contacted her after she authorized the letter in December. “Nobody called me, nobody made an appointment with me,” Wilson said.
McManus noted no one from Fairhope contacted his company before the letter was sent.
Is there a better idea?
Sute said that with 39 years of engineering experience, he’s sure there are alternatives to digging a sewer line under a river in an area that drains first into Weeks Bay and ultimately into Mobile Bay. And more than one resident alluded to the Fish River’s tendency to flood in a heavy rainstorm, such as occurred in April 2014.
“You don’t have to run this line under Fish River,” Sute said.
One of his suggestions was running the line up and over the river along the underside of the County Road 32 bridge or at U.S. 98, although BCSS officials said they weren’t sure that could be done. Sute also said he knows BCSS trucks some material to Gulf Shores. And, he said, BCSS and Fairhope could extend their agreement or negotiate a new one.
BCSS and Mayor Wilson indicated they might be willing to talk over the next 30 days. Meanwhile, little time remains before 96 customers get their sewer lines shut off.