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Big sewer spill floods into creeks


By BILL FINCH Environment Editor

The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System spilled about 2.5 million gallons of raw sewage Wednesday and Thursday into the watersheds of Rabbit Creek, Hall's Mill Creek, Three Mile Creek, Eslava Creek and Deer River, according to sewer system officials.

The Mobile County Health Department is urging people to use caution when coming into contact with these water bodies. The department also recommends that residents thoroughly cook any fish or shellfish harvested in the general area.

Some 39 separate overflows contributed to the total, with the worst spills -- each estimated at between 700,000 and 1.14 million gallons -- occurring along Rabbit Creek, Hall's Mill Creek and the Eslava Creek basin near downtown Mobile.

Smaller discharges -- in the range of a hundred to a couple of thousand gallons each -- went into Bolton Branch, Deer River and Three Mile Creek.

All of these creeks eventually drain into Mobile Bay.

Water and sewer officials said that heavy rains varying from 5 to 7 inches throughout their service area overwhelmed the system.

Several other area systems -- in Daphne, Fairhope and Loxley -- also reported sewer spills during the heavy rainfalls Wednesday and Thursday, though the spills were significantly smaller. State health department officials have also issued warnings for the D'Olive Creek and Fish River watersheds in Baldwin County.

Malcolm Steeves, executive director of the Mobile Area Wa ter and Sewer System, said this is one of the system's worst spills since 1998, when nearly 3 million gallons of sewage overflowed after a two-day rainfall totaling nearly 8 inches. The system has reported several spills in the 300,000- to 1 million-gallon range over the past four years, but no spill has required a health advisory since April of this year, according to sewer system officials.

"It's disheartening to experience this," said Steeves, who is attempting to settle a lawsuit that alleges that his system has violated the Clean Water Act thousands of times. "We are confident we are on the right track to prevent it. It might be that with these huge rains that go through, we might never get it down to zero. But we can do a lot better than this, and we are on track to do better."

But the director of the environmental group that sued the water system said the changes aren't happening fast enough.

"This is the time when children are supposed to be playing in the Bay," said Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile BayWatch. "What is it going to take for this to get fixed? The lawsuit may not be enough."

Mobile BayWatch, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, sued the Mobile water system in federal court more than a year and a half ago.

Steeves said the Mobile system has some unusual problems not faced by other systems, including a 150-square-mile service area that includes broad swaths of low-lying lands that are often submerged by storm waters. During unusually heavy rains, the storm water invades the sewer system at thousands of points, he said.

Sewer systems in Daphne and Fairhope have also blamed their recent series of spills on several 3- to 7-inch rainfalls that have drenched the area since June.

"All we're hearing is excuses from all of these facilities," said Callaway. "This is not the first time it has rained in Mobile. We've always lived this way, with rain and swamps. The technology exists to do a better job. It's time to bite the bullet and make it happen."

-- Martin Thompson (, August 01, 2001

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