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Judge signs consent decree in Hattiesburg wastewater settlement

Mayor Toby Barker discussed the settlement during a Thursday morning news conference.
Mayor Toby Barker discussed the settlement during a Thursday morning news conference.(WDAM)
Updated: Jan. 22, 2021 at 4:30 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - A federal judge signed a consent decree Wednesday between the city of Hattiesburg and state and federal agencies over a longstanding issue with the city’s wastewater system.

The consent decree and the accompanying lawsuit, filed by the Environmental Protection Agency, were announced by Mayor Toby Barker on Aug. 26 after seven years of negotiations.

Negotiations began during former Mayor Johnny DuPree’s administration after a September 2012 EPA inspection noted unreported sanitary sewer overflows.

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 and can pose a threat to public health. Law requires that SSOs be reported.

The city self-reported in 2017 that almost 900 SSOs had gone unreported from 2012 to 2016.

The consent decree between the city, the EPA and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality outlines a 16-year improvement plan for the city’s wastewater system.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Keith Starrett signed the consent decree, settling the lawsuit and setting the improvement plan into motion.

Under the decree, the city must pay a civil penalty of $165,000 within 30 days of the signing. The lump-sum fee covers all alleged environmental violations.

The decree also requires that the city submit a Sewer Overflow Response Plan and Emergency Response plan by April 20 and begin making escrow payments to fund the Supplemental Environmental Project on July 21.

The SEP will allow for investment, with landowner approval, into upgrading private sewer lines on residential properties where owners face financial hardship. A total of $220,800 has been committed to the program.

The city must also submit to the EPA and MDEQ a Sanitary Sewer Evaluation/Rehabilitation Work Plan by Oct. 20. The plan will help modernize and streamline the city’s infrastructure, personnel and equipment, including an information system management program and a sewer mapping program.

The decree commits the city to a 16-year plan to upgrade the city’s wastewater infrastructure, which is estimated to cost $45 million.

The city has already spent nearly $25 million in sewer rehabilitation and remediation projects since negotiations began in 2013.

“We are glad that this Consent Decree has been finalized and that the City of Hattiesburg can finally move forward,” Barker said in a Friday news release. “This settlement, while recognizing the mistakes of the past, also notes the progress made by the city over the past several years. We look forward to following through with an aggressive plan that will modernize both our sewer infrastructure and our operations and maintenance practices.”

According to Barker, the city has been consistently reporting SSOs since 2018.

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