Daphne Utilities has entered into a settlement agreement with the state attorney general’s office, the Alabama Department of Environmental Protection (ADEM) and Mobile Baykeeper to resolve a 2017 civil complaint over several alleged failures in its sewer treatment process. According to court documents, the utility was accused of failures to monitor Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs), failures to report SSOs, failures to accurately report SSOs and failures to notify the county health department of SSOs in some instances.
According to a draft settlement agreement submitted for Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Jody Bishop’s approval Wednesday, the utility admits no fault, but has agreed to take at least 12 major remedial actions. Those include “adequate” staffing at its primary wastewater treatment plant on Main Street, hiring an independent contractor to submit a comprehensive engineering report of the utility’s entire collection, transmission and treatment system, and following through with any recommendations of the engineering report.
Reportedly, the utility has already completed many of the terms of the agreement, including a requirement to independently test of treated effluent, in addition to its regular in-house testing by staff. Further, many employees at the treatment facility have already been replaced, retrained and re-certified, while a SSO response plan has been published on the utility’s website. A draft amended response plan accompanies the settlement agreement (below).
“This agreement is a strong step in the direction of clean water,” stated J. Patrick Courtney, III, attorney for Mobile Baykeeper. “Daphne Utilities has made staffing changes, improvements to their wastewater treatment processes, and investments in their sewage system that will benefit Mobile Bay.”
In addition to other material stipulations, the agreement also calls for $63,000 in civil penalties to be paid to various state entities, plus $50,000 to Mobile Baykeeper to assist the utility with notifying the public of future SSOs. Additional fines are enumerated should the utility not comply with any provisions of the agreement within time frames designated therein.
Meanwhile, the utility will be released from all other civil claims related to the complaint.
Using information provided by an internal whistleblower, Mobile Baykeeper undertook an investigation that compiled evidence indicating Daphne Utilities misrepresented a 1-million gallon release of partially treated sewage in August 2017 and between 2015 and 2017, reported 26 sewer overflows totaling more than 743,220 gallons of sewage, incorrectly reported the name of waterways affected by various spills and exceeded pollution discharge limits allowed by the plant’s permit.
Baykeeper filed a notice of intent to sue in September 2017, but the lawsuit was filed by the attorney general’s office and ADEM in November 2017. Baykeeper filed a motion to intervene, which was granted in 2018.
While independent from the city, the Utilities Board is appointed by the Daphne City Council and currently includes Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood and Councilman Robin LeJune as a members. Selena Vaughn, Tim Patton and Billy Mayhand are also appointed members, but not elected officials.
Reportedly, General Manager Danny Lyndall resigned over the summer to pursue a job opportunity out-of-state. Lyndall, who was assistant manager before assuming the top position in 2014, replaced Rob McElroy, who was hired in 2005. Currently, Operations Manager Bobby Purvis is serving as interim general manager, but the board is expected to name a permanent hire soon.
“Over the last 18 months we have implemented changes in personnel, operations, training and certification at our treatment facility,” Purvis said in a statement released this afternoon. “What happened was unfortunate but it is something we have used as an opportunity to learn from and improve our overall systems. We are working hard every day to keep our system exceeding expectations and the lack of any failures over the last year shows we are headed in the right direction.
“While there are many factors which can impact our operations including grease and storm water, I believe that our efforts, over the last two years, have this system operating as well or better than it has at any point before. As the operations manager charged with leading the effort to implement these improvements in plant operations, I can attest that our team has learned a valuable lesson — we cannot rely simply upon equipment and processes. Today, our employees understand the important role each of us hold in protecting our community.”
Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, released a statement Saturday.
“This lawsuit raised awareness for Daphne Utilities that they had a problem. It has been inspiring to see how far they have come. The utility has had very few spills over the last 6 months and water quality from the treatment plant is significantly better than it was in 2017-2018. We look forward to seeing them do their part to ensure we can all swim, fish, and play in Daphne area waterways,” Callaway said.
The next board meeting is scheduled Wednesday, Nov. 6, 5 p.m., at Daphne City Hall.
Daphne Utilities currently provides sewer service to around 12,300 customers, but also provides water and natural gas to 11,000 and 5,200 customer, respectively. It maintains 210 miles of pipeline, while its wastewater treatment plant is permitted to treat 4.17 million gallons per day. The outfall pipe for treated wastewater from the plant is in the mouth of the Spanish River, about a half-mile from the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay.
Updated Nov. 1. to include a statement from Bobby Purvis, and Nov. 2 to include statements from Mobile Baykeeper.
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