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Atmore not alone in sewage work

By By BRIAN BLACKLEY
Publisher
Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a three-part series on Atmore's water and wastewater systems in the wake of a rate increase this month that will add $4 to most customers' bills. See next Sunday's Advance for the final installment.
As the Atmore Utilities Board prepares to increase customer costs for water and sewage by $4 per month, city pipelines that carry sewage continue to plague the Board.
Underneath the city's streets, most of the clay pipes that carry sewage are between 50 and 80 years old and are pieced together every few feet by joints.
What this means is cracks and cracks spell trouble for the Utilities Board.
"There is no doubt that when we have heavy rains that our wastewater drainage system experiences problems," said Tom Wolfe, director of the Atmore Utilities Board. "The water seeps into our lines and causes spillage of waste through the cracks. There have been times when things that shouldn't be released into the environment are released, though in generally small quantities. Still, over time, this can create hazards."
The federal government agrees and has slapped a mandatory requirement that all wastewater systems be up to stricter guidelines in the coming years.
Under those restrictions, Wolfe said, Atmore would be outside of compliance.
"To get our system where it needs to be is going to take two critical things," Wolfe said. "First is time. We have to move early so we can get the work done. And the second is obviously money. If we had plenty of it, we would have been repairing line at a faster pace over the years. As it stands now, we have a lot of old sewage lines we have got to fix."
When the bulk of Atmore's lines were constructed between 40 and 80 years ago, standards about acceptable spillage were dramatically more flexible than they are today. Consequently, the pipes weren't required to meet strict guidelines, even when they were built. Add to that 40 years of erosion, damage, shifting and cracking, and, Wolfe says, problems occur.
"The point of all of this is that we absolutely have to comply with strict new demands that are not like the demands we have had to meet in the past," he said. "So even in the best-case scenario, there would be work that had to be done. In our situation, it is more dramatic than that."
Because of the high demand nationwide for work of this sort to be done as all cities race the clock to meet new guidelines, federal grants have dried up and only short-term loans are available. And loans have to be paid back, even if they are utilized.
"This is something that will cost millions," Wolfe said. "And the only way to generate that kind of money is through raising rates. It's regrettable at this time to have to do this in a city that is facing what Atmore is facing, but we have to get moving or we'll be in trouble down the road."
Atmore is far from being alone as it faces the issue.
In Mobile County, seepage during rains has caused raw sewage to pour into Mobile Bay representing a major environmental problem. Mobile and Baldwin counties have both come under scrutiny of environmental organizations that are keeping a watchful eye on the potential for harm to Mobile Bay.
Though Atmore and Escambia County haven't been put under that kind of scrutiny, Wolfe said it is only a matter of time.
"There were lawsuits there (in Mobile County) that sped up the repair process for them," he said. "And in Baldwin County, growth has spurred major renovations in the way several of their wastewater facilities do things."
By October 2001, Mobile and Baldwin counties had reported 196 spills by the month of October, the Mobile Register reported that month.
In Atmore, the number of spills correlates closely with the number of days the community has had substantial rain.
When this happens, manholes overflow with runoff water causing the water level inside the sewage system to rise. Sometimes, it breaks out and spills into ditches, streams or simply runs off into the ground.
Cracked pipes also absorb water runoff and spill sewage into the city, Wolfe said.
"We do these things called smoke tests to check for damaged lines," he said. "We send a concentration of smoke into the pipes and watch the street to see where it may leak out. The idea is if smoke can get out, water can get in."
While Wolfe said many miles of line have been repaired, standard repairs won't fix the problem.
"We have to go into the streets with material that fits inside the current pipes and seals into place. This is the cheapest way we have to fix damaged pipes," he said.
But even using the latest technology and the best bids from the cheapest companies in the area that do the work won't be enough under the Utilities Board's current budget.
While the rate increase has been announced, Wolfe said, people haven't yet received their bills that reflect the new charges.
"I just don't want them to be surprised with what they will see," he said. "The average residential customer will pay three dollars more for sewage and one dollar more for water. There will be an increase we want them to prepare for."
Read about federal regulations next Sunday in The Atmore Advance.