HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The city of Hattiesburg is no longer paying a hefty daily fine after renegotiating its agreement with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Gulf Restoration Network (GRN).
Hattiesburg missed a May 1, 2016, construction deadline set by MDEQ, which came with a $1,500 per day fine.
"I'm excited to tell people that those fines that we've been paying, like $1,500 a day, as of August 18 have stopped," Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree said.
At $1,500 per day, the city will owe $163,500 for the 109 days it was fined between May 1, 2016, and Aug. 18, 2016.
DuPree said the decision to stop the fining the city comes after months of negotiations among Hattiesburg's attorneys and engineers and MDEQ and GRN about the requirements the city is being ordered to meet.
"GRN and MDEQ along with our attorneys have decided that because the last few months our lagoons have been doing really well, that we're looking at maybe trying to renegotiate the terms of that amended order and the agreed order and this consent decree," DuPree said. "Because of all of that, we're even looking into the possibility of maybe even reducing the increase in the sewer rates that we had last month. That's all good news, and it's because, I think, of negotiations that we've had with these different entities, and because we've been real good on as far as not violating our limits in the lagoons for the past few months. We hope that that goes on for the next few months, but we don't know what we'll end up (with) as far as an agreement. But that's good news for the citizens right now."
The most recent negotiations on Aug. 18 happened after the city announced it was no longer going to build a land application system to treat its wastewater and opted to build a mechanical treatment plant.
"We were trying to do land application, and then all of a sudden, two weeks ago, land application was not an option anymore," DuPree said. "So everything was geared toward land application, purchasing land, that kind of thing, but now since we're going down another road, we need that opportunity now to re-evaluate and reset if you will. We brought everybody together at one time, so that we could talk about the lagoons, talk about the rates, talk about all those things that were going on and talk about the fines that we've been paying. They all agreed that we need to sit down and negotiate, look at this whole thing again and renegotiate. That's good news for the ratepayer. They'll give us time to look at them and negotiate again, the limits, and also look at the amount of fees that the ratepayers have to pay."
While the city is meeting current environmental requirement levels in its lagoons, DuPree said Hattiesburg's wastewater project must plan for higher future requirements.
"It's really not about today," he said. "It's about the future. It's about having those limits that will come down on us for nitrogen, ammonia, phosphorous. those are limits in the future that we have to treat the sewage to. It's to that level, and so we're still in negotiations about what that looks like at the end of the day. It gives us a little time (now) that we've stopped the penalties, and we're continuing to talk. That's a good thing."
DuPree said recently increased water and sewer rates and keeping future costs down for residents will be a focus of future negotiations.
"Gosh we understand," DuPree said. "We feel the pain. We understand what rates do to people, whether it's gas or electricity or water, any of those essential things that you have to do in order to just get up in the morning. We understand that, and our goal is to make this as painless as we possibly can. We just want to make sure that the ratepayers understand that we're doing everything that we can to keep the rates as low as we can and to make sure at the same time that we're treating the sewage to the limits that we need to treat it at and make sure we follow all the laws."
DuPree said the next goal is working to get the final Sept. 1, 2018, deadline pushed back.
"The amended agreed order says September 2018," DuPree said. "That's still the date. So hopefully we can look at that date, and maybe we can do something else that's more tolerable than September 2018. But this is good news that the fees have stopped, and we're hopefully renegotiating this whole issue about wastewater. We're going to revisit the fees that were increased last month."