(Mobile, Ala.) - When the Alabama Department of Public Health notified the public about a sewage spill from the Town of Loxley on Monday, Mobile Baykeeper’s Program Director Cade Kistler grabbed his gear and headed out to Fish River.
Kistler took samples from four locations along Fish River: County Rd 64 just down from the Loxley discharge, Highway 104, Bohemian Park (County Rd. 48), and County Rd 32. This evening Mobile Baykeeper staff were able to read the results, which showed E. coli levels of 262 MPN/100mL (most probable number of bacteria in 100mL of water) at County Rd 64, 160 MPN/100mL at Highway 104, 170 MPN/100mL at Bohemian Park, and 134 MPN/100mL at County Rd 32. The EPA E. coli threshold for swimming is 235 MPN/100mL. While these results are near, and in one case just exceeding, the EPA threshold it’s important to note they are similar to the average E. coli levels (193 MPN/100mL) Mobile Baykeeper’s S.W.I.M. sampling has found in Fish River at Bohemian Park on days without reported sewage releases or spills.
“These are much lower results than what we’ve previously seen when sampling recent sewage spills, so it appears most of the partially treated wastewater has either gone down the river past where we sampled or has been diluted,” Kistler says. “We would recommend people refrain from swimming or fishing for another 48 hours but we feel cautiously optimistic that much of the wastewater has been diluted and has moved out of Fish River.” He adds that even though it seems much of the impact to the river has passed, sewage spills like this remain a major issue in our area.
Sewage is regularly released into our public waterways, but it’s only legally allowed to be released after it’s gone through a rigorous treatment process. Throughout the country, utilities first remove the solids from our wastewater before disinfecting it. A variety of methods are available, but the most common one is chlorine. After this step, the treated sewage is released into a local waterbody. Across Mobile and Baldwin counties, there are 36 different sewage outfalls. The Loxley Wastewater Treatment Plant releases theirs every day into Fish River at County Road 64, near Dixon Lane.
What made this release different was that the chlorine tank used to disinfect the wastewater was low. A switch should have automatically changed the process over to a backup chlorine tank, but the switch failed. The result: approximately 268,901 gallons of partially treated sewage were released into Fish River, without being disinfected, between 11:25 PM on Sunday October 6 and 6:45 AM on Monday October 7. Loxley reported this spill to ADEM after staff corrected the problem on the morning of Monday October 7.
“Mobile Baykeeper always wants to see utilities using the most advanced treatment methods possible. If this wastewater that we all create is going to be treated and released into our waterways, it needs to be done as well as possible to protect our health,” Kistler says. “That includes adding in more failsafes that can alert wastewater operators when problems like this occur. It’s worth it to protect public health and the waterways where we swim, fish, work, and play.”
Mobile Baykeeper is an especially big proponent of public notification and signage. In 2017, along with eight other conservation groups across the state, they petitioned Alabama’s Environmental Management Commission to require sewage treatment facilities to notify the public when they discharge or spill partially treated or untreated sewage. That petition was denied, but ADEM did implement several measures, including required emergency response plans and email notifications of sewage spills.
Mobile Baykeeper strives to fill in the gap using social media, email newsletters, and their interactive Sewage Spill Explorer so citizens can make decisions to protect their health.
But when Kistler arrived on the scene late Monday night, he met two people wading in the water who had not heard about the spill and Tuesday night met a grandfather and a young girl who were headed to swim, also unaware of the spill. “The Loxley Wastewater Treatment Plant followed regulation by notifying the health department, but we think Alabama can do better,” Kistler says. “We want to see requirements for signage and other improved notifications so citizens can make their own decisions about how to protect their health. We want to see utilities investing in their systems with more staffing, SCADA alarms, failsafes, and redundancies so we’re not relying on just one switch.”
While population growth did not cause Loxley’s sewage spill, Kistler is concerned about the growth that Baldwin County is experiencing and stresses that utilities need to make the necessary upgrades to handle the higher demand. “We can see from our S.W.I.M. sampling after heavy rains that population growth has put additional strain on our utilities. We’ve got to keep telling our elected officials and the boards of these utilities that we want them to invest our resources in the protection of our waterways and our public health.”
Through their "Swim Where It's Monitored" (S.W.I.M.) program, Mobile Baykeeper’s Patrol team tests 9 sites in and around Mobile Bay weekly during the summer and monthly in the winter. They analyze water samples for the bacteria Enterococci, which indicates fecal matter. These data add to those of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), making a total of 34 sites tested in and around Mobile Bay. Mobile Baykeeper reports their own and ADEM's results to Swim Guide, a mobile app and website, as well as updating their own website and emailing subscribers. Anyone can sponsor their own S.W.I.M. site at mobilebaykeeper.org/swim.
While public notification and our utilities could certainly use more investments and improvements, Mobile Baykeeper is striving independently to raise awareness, improve public notification, and urge our utilities to invest more in their systems.
“I live near Bohemian Park and I think every day about the health and safety of the people swimming there,” Kistler says. “The wastewater that we all create is released into our waterways, and it needs to be treated as best as possible to protect our health. We’re glad Loxley invested in an upgrade of their treatment facility in 2016. It seems that at Loxley and throughout the area there is even more we can do to protect our health, environment, and quality of life.”
Mobile Baykeeper is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization that works to provide citizens a means to protect the beauty, health and heritage of the Mobile Bay Watershed and our coastal communities. To learn more about Mobile Baykeeper, please visit www.mobilebaykeeper.org.