At the conclusion of a tour of Daphne Utilities’ wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) on D’Olive Creek last month, General Manager Danny Lyndall pointed out one of the walls in an employee break room. It’s covered with about 20 awards from professional organizations. There are a few others piled up on a filing cabinet nearby.

“We’re running out of room to hang them,” he said.

There are awards for water quality, pollution control, distribution, recycling efforts and employee performance, among other things. When the plant works, Lyndall stressed, it’s one of the best in Alabama, if not the nation.

But at issue in a lawsuit threatened by Mobile Baykeeper in September is what happened when the plant or other areas of the system didn’t work, the amount of damage it potentially caused and what was reported to the public or regulatory agencies afterward.

Earlier, Lyndall had paused the tour halfway through to “tell you what happened here in August.”

Daphne Utilities’ WWTP is an activated sludge system, largely automated but requiring frequent human oversight, maintenance and adjustments. Treating an average of three million gallons per day, raw sludge enters the plant via the “headworks,” where inorganic solids are removed.

SERIES: Mobile and Baldwin County Wastewater Treatment
Just beyond the headworks are cavernous underground tanks, where the sludge is briefly stored before it is pumped to massive aeration tanks on opposite ends of the property.

It was there, in the first step of a six-step treatment process, where a power outage in August prevented pumps from moving the sewage to the second step of the process.

As Lyndall explained, after the “power blink,” the plant’s computer system did not communicate to the pumps to restart automatically, as designed. Instead, “they were in manual mode,” he said, for several hours overnight when the plant wasn’t staffed.

The flow continued to enter the plant, but after the headworks, it overtopped the underground storage tanks and then began spilling onto the property. The untreated sewage — “it looked like a layer of water running through here,” he said — flowed north, filling four concrete basins and an inclined pump area before eventually reaching D’Olive Creek.

“The first step when we saw it was to turn the pumps back on,” he said. “It was literally a matter of switching them from manual to automatic mode. They kicked on, they started pumping to both sides of the plant like they were supposed to do, we pulled these levels down, and the overflow stopped almost instantaneously.”

Then, workers set about pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of sewage from the basins and ramp area back into the headworks, and rinsing the entire area with fire hoses. Lyndall noted the large concrete basins weren’t designed to capture overflows, but fortunately served in that capacity during this incident.

“My first call was to Baykeeper. While we figured out what was going on we basically let them know, ‘hey, we have a major incident here,’” Lyndall recalled. “Then, we did our paperwork, we sent it to ADEM [Alabama Department of Environmental Management] and to the health department as we’re required to do.”

Using evidence provided by a former Daphne Utilities employee, Baykeeper claims the utility company intentionally misled about the scope of the spill. Lyndall said 500,000 gallons reached the creek. Baykeeper said it was more than a million.

Utilities Board Chairman Randy Fry, who attended the tour along with a public relations executive, claimed he had complete confidence in the plant’s management and operation.

“That’s an almost impossible calculation to make because once these pumps turned off, we no longer have an accurate flow rate,” Lyndall said. “The only thing we can do at that point is to compare … to take data from a similar day and see what the difference is. We were making the best estimate we can.”