HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - The City of Hattiesburg reached a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality Wednesday over a longstanding issue with the city’s wastewater system.
Mayor Toby Barker said the agreement comes after seven years of negotiations that began during former Mayor Johnny DuPree’s administration in 2013 after the EPA noted in September 2012 many unreported sanitary sewage overflows in Hattiesburg.
Sanitary sewer overflows, or SSOs, occur when untreated sewage is discharged from a sanitary sewer system, which is a violation of the Clean Water Act. Law requires that SSOs be reported.
According to Barker, Hattiesburg’s SSOs resulted from storm water entering the sewer system through aging pipes, causing an overflow of wastewater and storm water from sewer manholes during heavy rain.
“SSOs are a byproduct of aging infrastructure, specifically in towns that are the age and size of Hattiesburg,” Barker said during a Thursday morning news conference.
According to the EPA, health risks from SSOs include sewage getting into drinking water, basements, lawns and streets, which can cause disease.
In November 2017, the city self-reported that almost 900 SSOs had not been reported from 2012 to 2016, Barker said.
Since negotiations began in 2013, Barker said the city has spent nearly $25 million in sewer rehabilitation and remediation projects.
A lawsuit and consent decree filed Wednesday brought negotiations to an end and committed Hattiesburg to further actions to improve the sewer system.
Under the consent decree, the city committed to a 16-year plan to address wastewater issues, which is estimated to cost approximately $45 million. The plan includes improving the sewer infrastructure and reporting practices, training for city employees and maintenance of the system.
The city will also pay a fine of $165,600 for the unreported SSOs from 2012 to 2016.
“In summary, this consent decree recognizes the mistakes of the past, however, also recognizes the many steps that the city has been taking in both infrastructure and operations in recent years, and that includes from the previous administration,” Barker said. “And looking forward, it commits the city to an aggressive 16-year plan to modernize both our sewer infrastructures and the operations of the actual sewer system.”
According to Barker, the city has been consistently reporting SSOs since 2018 under Water and Sewer director Alan Howe.
Some of the projects committed to have already begun, such as repairing or replacing pipes in two problem areas and monitoring and reporting overflows.
Eighty-one sewer lift stations have been outfitted with an alert system that lets Water and Sewer employees know when a problem is occurring.
“Which means that my guys on call can go there immediately and take care of the problem immediately before you get an overflow at the station,” Howe said. “We’ve had no overflows in several months, eight or nine months we’ve had no overflows on stations.”
Barker said the city will also be working in the two priority areas in older areas of the city to repair or replace the sewer infrastructure.
“Around 35-36, something like that, that we generally know if we get enough rainflow in an area that those are going to overflow,” said Shea McNease of SDW Engineering Progress, which was contracted by the city.
Barker said the projects won’t impact city water rates in the short term.
“We do not anticipate recommending a rate increase to the City Council this year,” Barker said.
The city will have quarterly and annual check ins with the EPA and MDEQ to show the city is keeping up with the projects.
The city will also be setting aside $220,800 over the next four years to replace defective lines connecting homes to the main sewer line for people with economic hardship, which officials say will help manage the overflows.
A 30-day comment period will be held before a judge can approve the consent degree. City officials said they expect it to be approved.