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Priceville incurs fines over sewer issues, including allegedly hiding E. coli levels

By Eric Fleischauer

For the Enquirer

A proposed settlement between Priceville and the state resolves allegations that the town was discharging untreated wastewater into the river with E. coli levels as much as 14 times permitted levels and was testing multiple water samples from its wastewater lagoon and only reporting those results that met state regulations.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management imposed, and the Priceville council has agreed to pay, a $12,700 fine, a dollar amount ADEM reduced because the town “has an inability to pay a portion of the civil penalty.”

In addition to the fine, the consent order requires Priceville to make extensive upgrades to Priceville Lagoon and other parts of its sanitary sewer system. A 30-day public comment period on the proposed consent order ends April 23.

After receiving a notice that it had violated ADEM regulations, the town hired Krebs Engineering this past year to begin coming up with a compliance plan.

Priceville Lagoon, which is the sole treatment facility for Priceville and Somerville, is off Old Branch Road. Wastewater from the lagoon is piped into the Tennessee River at Muscle Camp Road, the site of a popular boat ramp and swimming area.

Mayor Sam Heflin, who won the August municipal election after long-time predecessor Melvin Duran declined to seek reelection, said no personnel changes are being made as a result of ADEM’s findings.

“We have our best people on it, and we won’t stop until it’s resolved,” said Heflin, who receives part of his salary in his role as wastewater superintendent. “We have not made any personnel changes. We have discussed some different training aspects with our people. We’re working on fixing the things that happened in the past.”

Heflin and the new Town Council members took office Nov. 2.

“We’ve got a small rearview mirror and a big windshield, and we’re moving forward,” he said.

The path to the consent order began in February 2020, when ADEM inspected Priceville Lagoon. The inspection found numerous violations of Priceville’s discharge permit.

Former Councilman Jerry Welch chaired the wastewater committee until he lost the election in August to Melvin Duran III, the son of the longtime mayor. Welch said his role was solely to oversee lagoon finances. He said he first began looking into the operations of the lagoon when a wastewater employee approached him in the summer of 2019, and what Welch learned ultimately prompted him to contact ADEM and triggered the unannounced ADEM inspection.

The employee advised Welch he was treating wastewater effluent samples — samples of the wastewater just before it was piped to the river — with chlorine tablets, Welch said. Welch said the employee, who Welch understood was acting under instructions from a superior, referred to it as “bleaching” the samples. The employee said he used the chlorine on the samples before sending them to a contractor for testing, so the E. coli numbers reported to ADEM would be within required limits, according to Welch. E. coli is a bacterium found in feces.

Welch said he was immediately alarmed and notified other town leaders. The response he received then, he said, is the same as the response he gets now.

“I can’t get anyone to care over there. They’re mad at me because I went to ADEM. They’re disgusted,” he said. “I went to as many people as I could to get this corrected. If I hadn’t done what I did — going to the state and getting them to come in and get real numbers — we would still be sending all of this E. coli to the river with no changes.”

Even since Krebs Engineering began disinfecting the lagoon, E. coli numbers reported to ADEM have been above allowable limits.

ADEM’s inspection report was damning.

“As of 2-27-20, the lagoons have never been dredged, and the sludge level has not been checked in six months,” according to the report. “Also, sampling events are conducted in such a way that samples exceeding permit limits are routinely discarded and new sampling takes place in order to obtain a ‘good’ number.”

The inspection report noted that no disinfection of the waste discharged from the lagoon into the river was taking place.

“The facility is not disinfecting the outfall, and the resulting E. coli results exceed by far the established permit limits,” according to the report. “The

facility samples for E. coli until they get results that are within permit limits, and those numbers are then reported.”

Waste leaving the lagoon had “visible solids present,” according to the report.

As bad as the report was, Welch said inspectors had no way to confirm some of the issues that concerned Welch most. The inspection revealed E. coli levels more than 10 times the allowable limit and well below the levels previously reported to ADEM, but the inspectors had no way to know whether the levels in the pre-inspection samples had been artificially suppressed with chlorine tablets.

The spot inspection, Welch said, also could not determine that far more sewage was being emptied into the lagoon than its 250,000-gallon-per-day design capacity.

Welch said even then the lagoon was receiving 350,000 gallons per day, a number he said is increasing with Priceville’s rapid population growth. This is a critical problem, Welch said, because it means wastewater is rushed through the lagoon, defeating its function of allowing solids to sink and sunlight and air to provide some level of disinfection before the wastewater enters the river.

Nor could the lagoon inspection detect that the contaminated wastewater was being discharged into the river 150 feet offshore from the Muscle Camp Road boat ramp, and that no warnings to swimmers or boaters were posted.

After the ADEM inspection, Welch said he coordinated the hiring of Krebs Engineering to evaluate and upgrade the lagoon. Shortly before Welch lost the election in August, Krebs began a pilot program that for the first time in the lagoon’s 25-year life began treating the wastewater with a disinfectant.

Development

Welch said one of his primary concerns is that the wastewater flowing into the lagoon already exceeds its capacity.

“We currently have 100 homes under construction. They’re going to be hooking up to the sewer here this year,” Welch said. “We’ve got new construction going on in Somerville. Where are you going to put all that human waste?

“There is nowhere to put it, so it’s going to be pumped out to the river.”

Welch said he raised his concern with Daphne Lutz, chief of the municipal and industrial division of ADEM, and she responded that placing a moratorium on sewer connections can cause more problems than it solves.

She wrote back that “moratoriums can often result in greater environmental damage than if collections were allowed. In addition, additional connections can also provide additional necessary funding to make the necessary repairs and upgrades at wastewater treatment plants.”

ADEM did not respond to a request for comment from “The Decatur Daily.”

The proposed consent order lists the reported amounts of E. coli, suspended solids and carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand in the lagoon from May 2019 to January of this year. CBOD is a measure of organic material in the wastewater, such as feces and grease.

All three levels were consistently above the limits imposed by Priceville’s discharge permit, with E. coli levels peaking at 14 times the legal limit and frequently 10 times the limit. CBOD was frequently twice the limit imposed by Priceville’s discharge permit.

The consent order requires Priceville to have an engineer prepare a plan to upgrade the sewer system, and for the town to fully comply with its permit requirements on E. coli, suspended solids and CBOD by June 30, 2022.

Remedy

The town has begun taking steps to remedy problems at its lagoon.

In September, Krebs Engineering filed a report with ADEM advising that town employees are now required to report the results of all wastewater samples to ADEM, including those that do not comply with the discharge permit. The town also implemented a protocol to measure sludge depth in the lagoons, according to Krebs.

Krebs also said the town would begin disinfecting wastewater before it is discharged from the lagoon with peracetic acid to reduce E. coli levels, a process that has since begun.

Problems at the lagoon, however, continue.

March 17, Michael Bell, the operator of the lagoon, filed a notice of noncompliance showing CBOD levels above the permit limits. “I do not know the cause of noncompliance,” he wrote. Feb. 18, Bell notified ADEM that wastewater samples were well above permitted levels for suspended solids and CBOD and again said he did not know why the levels were so high.

Dec. 16, Bell advised ADEM that the monthly average for E. coli was 13 times the amount allowed under the discharge permit, and that CBOD levels were also too high. He noted Priceville was in the process of installing aerators at the lagoons, and he expected peracetic acid to begin reducing E. coli levels.

In October, E. coli levels were six times the permitted level.

Bell did not respond to a request for comment.

Heflin and Councilman Melvin Duran III, who now chairs the committee overseeing the sewer system, declined to say how much Krebs estimates the lagoon upgrades will cost.

“They’ve got a general idea, but I don’t want to give that because it could be totally wrong. It could be a lot more or a lot less,” Duran said.

Duran said he is meeting with Krebs this week to review a compliance plan, which then must be approved by ADEM.

“If ADEM approves the plan, then we’ll send it out for bids, and we’ll know what the cost is,” he said.

He said the $5.6 million recreation center the Town Council recently approved won’t be affected by the cost of upgrading the lagoon.

“We don’t anticipate any financial problems at all,” Duran said.

Duran said the Town Council is focused on moving forward.

“We can’t control anything that happened in the years past,” Duran said. “We’re going to keep positive attitudes and move together as a team. I’m not going to second-guess people from before my administration … I do see people getting trained and doing more training.”

Priceville discharges its wastewater into the Tennessee River upstream of Decatur Utilities’ drinking water intake.

“The Town of Priceville wastewater treatment lagoon is located approximately 7 miles upstream of the DU water treatment plant with a discharge of less than 400,000 gallons per day,” said DU spokesman Joe Holmes. “It is doubtful that DU would see any impact from the Town of Priceville’s discharge based on the distance to the plant and dilution of the discharge by water present in the Tennessee River/Wheeler Basin Reservoir.”

Holmes said DU disinfects all drinking water before it leaves the treatment plant and performs weekly bacteriological sampling in the distribution system.

Welch said he hopes Priceville residents will react to problems at the lagoon by putting pressure on town leaders to make necessary upgrades.

“There’s going to be some major expenses to get this thing corrected. We can’t look the other way,” Welch said. “We can’t allow them to just pump

this stuff out to the river while people are swimming and putting boats in the water. That’s against everything I’ve ever believed in.

“We have to get it done. I did what I could when I could. The people of Priceville just need to know the truth.”

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