Black Warrior Riverkeeper is still seeking answers and action following an incident last week that spilled raw sewage into the Black Warrior River. The local environmental advocacy group has expressed serious concerns about the effects of this massive sewage spill.

The City of Northport closed four pump stations Saturday in an attempt to repair the city's main sewer pipeline, and the city estimates that 100,000 of raw sewage was pumped into the Black Warrior River as well as three surrounding creeks; however, APR reports that other estimates put the spill at closer to one MILLION gallons of raw sewage.

Black Warrior Riverkeeper has created an interactive Google Map with details on the sewage spill. The map shows where raw sewage was spilled at station pump overflow sites and which creeks have been affected by the sewage spills.

In a statement posted to Facebook this afternoon, Black Warrior Riverkeeper's Nelson Brooke provided a detailed account of the organization's search for answers from Northport City Officials (paragraph breaks added):

I called the Northport Wastewater Department to get an update on the sewage spill, and was told to call Julie Ramm, Northport's Community Relations Coordinator, at (205) 339-7000. I got her voicemail and left a message at 9am. Have not heard back from her as of 12:30pm. I also called Mayor Bobby Herndon and Interim City Administrator Charles Swann. Mr. Swann called me back at 10:45 and fielded my questions.

 

Permanent repairs are being made the the broken 20-inch wastewater force main on 5th Street in Northport today and tomorrow. They hope to work quickly to avoid any additional spills at their lift stations, which would flow into nearby creeks, and ultimately the river. His understanding is that the force main broke under 5th St. near the intersection with 30th Ave.

 

Personnel had to turn off lift station pumps to depressurize the force main line so that repairs could be made; that caused the lift station wet wells to fill up, and overflow into nearby streams, which ultimately flow into the Black Warrior River. They have no sewage spill volume update at this time; their Wastewater System Manager and Utilities Director are trying to compute the volume of the spill.

No water quality testing of streams or the river was performed by the city, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) was closed over the holidays when Northport reported the spill. Northport will be discussing with ADEM what reporting and cleanup requirements there may be.

 

The extent of public notice given by Northport consisted of 2 posts on their Facebook page, a link to the post on their website, and a tweet linking to the post from Northport Fire Rescue. Mr. Swann said Northport will be doing a review of what they could have done better, and they will be having a tabletop discussion about everything in the coming days. They are potentially looking at better notification procedures as a part of their discussion.

 

Black Warrior Riverkeeper believes the City of Northport was not prepared to handle the upset conditions with their wastewater collection system, did not have an adequate spill response plan and protocol in place, should have made sure an understanding of what happened was shared with city personnel available 24hrs. at the city's Emergency Water/Wastewater Number so the inquiring public could be informed, and could have done far more to ensure that adequate public notice was provided via the Tuscaloosa County Health Department and local media outlets - and most importantly - at local parks, river access points, and boat launches in the immediate area of the spill & downstream of the spill.

 

Without being able to quickly determine the volume of the spill, what streams were impacted and where, Northport's task of properly notifying the public - a key requirement of their NPDES water pollution permit issued by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) - was left undone. It is a real shame that there is no clear understanding of what the downstream impacts of the spill are, and that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people were unknowingly swimming and recreating downstream during the Fourth of July holiday, and will continue to do so without proper public notice.

 

We have offered our assistance to Northport to help them be better prepared for future mishaps. This cannot happen again. This spill and its aftermath is one of many examples across the Black Warrior River watershed and the state of Alabama where municipalities are not properly notifying the public of raw sewage spills, and where ADEM is not enforcing the law in Alabama. These operational and enforcement failures are putting far too many people downstream at risk. It is time for systemic change in Alabama!

 

Here is a map we created of the spill area: google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1wjRYVyqY_IQonx7-gqF6CVOU2wk And to be clear, we are still recommending that people not swim in the river near Northport and Tuscaloosa, as well as downstream of Northport. Unfortunately, since authorities did not collect water samples or determine the volume of spills that occurred, it is out of an abundance of caution that we encourage people to be safe until we learn more from the City of Northport.

The City of Northport posted the following update to Facebook at 12:38 p.m. Sunday, July 3, 2016:

Temporary repairs to the damaged wastewater force main located on 5th Street have been made. All sanitary sewer overflows have been stopped. Permanent repairs will begin Tuesday. 5th Street will be closed beginning at 9:00 a.m. and will remain closed throughout the day while repairs are made. City personnel will continue to monitor the situation and will work with ADEM accordingly on reporting and clean up requirements.

According to the tweet below, the City of Northport will begin work to permanently repair the damaged pump on Wednesday, July 6.