River protection groups call for strong rules to notify and protect the public from sewage spills and overflows

Birmingham, Alabama
Cahaba River near Grants Mill Road

This week, Alabama’s leading river protection groups petitioned the Alabama Environmental Management Commission (AEMC) to write regulations requiring sewage treatment facilities to notify the public when they are exposed to sewage spills and overflows.

According to a recent news release, the groups contend that citizens have a fundamental right to know when their local streams and rivers are unsafe for swimming, fishing and other recreation to protect themselves and their families from the serious consequences of sewage pollution.

Submitting the petition were Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, Friends of Hurricane Creek, Little River Waterkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper, and Tennessee Riverkeeper.

Recent high profile events, like Northport’s major sewage overflows which discharged up to 4,000,000 gallons of sewage into the Black Warrior River right before the busy July 4, 2016 weekend, have highlighted this pressing problem.

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Although wastewater treatment plants are required by Alabama law to “immediately” notify the public of sewage spills, there are no regulations which specify a time, plan or even a bare minimum level of notification,” according to Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper

“Sadly, raw sewage often spills out of manholes and pumping stations before ever reaching your local wastewater treatment plant for proper treatment, which means your local stream, creek, river, or lake may have untreated sewage in it.  Operators of treatment plants in Alabama must do a better job of adequately notifying the public when sewage spills happen, especially so that folks who are swimming, fishing, and recreating downstream do not put their health at risk,” Brooke concluded.

Sewer overflows pose a substantial public health threat to citizens.

According to the EPA Experts Workshop on Public Health Impacts of Sewer Overflows, “Sewer overflows are a human health issue because they can create the potential for exposure to disease-causing pathogens, including protozoa, bacteria, and viruses. Activities involving exposure to [sewage] contaminants through swimming or other contact can lead to infectious diseases such as hepatitis, gastrointestinal disorders, dysentery, and swimmer’s ear. Other forms of bacteria can cause typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Human health also can be impacted from ingesting fish or shellfish contaminated by [sewage] discharges.”

Alabama law allows “any person” to petition the Environmental Management Commission to engage in rulemaking.  Granting a petition for rulemaking does not mean that a proposed rule will be adopted; it only means that public comment on the proposed rule will be solicited and a decision whether to adopt the proposed rule will be made.

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“With another recreation season almost upon us, the petitioners look forward to working productively with the Commission to ensure that the petition process yields the strongest, most comprehensive public notification rule possible,” said Eva Dillard, Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s staff attorney.

Along with the petition sent to the AEMC by the nine river protection groups, fellow signatory, the Coosa Riverkeeper is gathering signatures from the general public in an effort to build support around this initiative.

Information about that petition can be found at the Coosa Riverkeeper “Do you know if there’s a sewage spill near you?” webpage.


Pat Byington
Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.

Articles: 2005