Mayor Defends Tuscaloosa After Sewage Spills Lawsuit, Citing Huge Investments and 99.9 Percent Efficiency
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox was quick to defend city staff and leaders Tuesday in the wake of a lawsuit filed last month by the state of Alabama that seeks to punish the city for five years of issues in its wastewater systems.
As the Thread first reported, the state and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management filed a lawsuit against the city in late September, alleging the city has allowed more than 41 million gallons of sewage to spill into local waterways since 2018.
The complaint asks Circuit Judge Brad Almond to order Tuscaloosa to clean up its act and to penalize the city monetarily for several hundred violations of the terms of the ADEM permit that governs the operation of the Hilliard N. Fletcher Water Resource Recovery Facility.
Mayor Maddox and Council President Kip Tyner both lambasted media coverage of the lawsuit during their regular preparatory pre-council brief Tuesday ahead of a full meeting at 6 p.m.
"What does get lost is 99.9 percent of the 32 billion gallons of sewage that was treated in that time period -- it entered our system, it was treated. It went through the system. 99.9 percent - I think that's better than what even Lysol does," Maddox said. "The issues that are reported, the majority of them, come from historic flooding events. And the data that's being used - that's data we provided on our website."
The mayor is correct, and the Thread did report that flooding in February and March 2020 caused almost 29 million gallons of the sanitary sewer overflows listed in the lawsuit.
Maddox said he fully supports Kimberly Michael, a longtime city employee who was named Executive Director Water & Sewer department in October 2022. He also said the city is in the middle of a $300 million investment to repair and upgrade its water and sewer infrastructure - a process that started long before this lawsuit was filed.
Tyner and Maddox both said the city is not getting any credit for self-reporting the very problems it is being sued over and said few other municipalities and wastewater system operators are as transparent as the city of Tuscaloosa.
"Not only do we report everything to ADEM, we go beyond the law. We do personal notifications, we put information on our website," Maddox said. "There's not one piece of information, to my knowledge, in the complaint that wasn't taken off our own website - what we reported. And again, we have a 99.9 percent success rate!"
Maddox said residents will learn more about the city's wastewater systems as this case develops.
"There is so much more, that, through the appropriate venue, which is the legal system, we will have our opportunity to share," the mayor said. "But in the meantime, I am proud that we're a city that - we care about when your children are swimming in a tributary or in a river or in a creek. Do you know why we go the extra mile? Because that could be our child. Unlike most communities in our state and most authorities in our state who don't [report sewer overflows widely], we take the step and do. I'm proud of our city for being upfront, honest and transparent and holding ourselves accountable."
Tyner, a longtime TV journalist himself, is not satisfied with most reporting on the sewage issue.
"It just angers me that journalism has gotten to this point where it's pitiful," Tyner said. "There's no such thing as facts, no such thing as both sides or three sides to a story and I'm just ashamed of journalism, for the most part."
Maddox said these facts and figures about the successes of the sewer system will not be widely reported and are not "web-click worthy," but said the city's recent wins speak for themselves.
Just think about the last two months. Pop Stroke in [Kip Tyner's] district. SI Resort in [Norman Crow's] district. The continued growth and expansion of the University and Mercedes, our city population growing. Does that truly happen in communities that don't have strong infrastructure? Of course not - and we have strong infrastructure. If you don't take our word for it, just look at the people who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars here. They don't do that haphazardly."
Given the opportunity to respond to the lawsuit immediately after it was fired, the city issued a single, one-paragraph statement.
"The City is working alongside ADEM to expand and enhance our water & sewer system to continually meet the needs of Tuscaloosa’s rapidly growing population. The City is halfway through a ten-year capital improvements plan to upgrade the current infrastructure. Tuscaloosa is committed to having the best in class water quality, and will continue to maintain the highest levels of transparency.”
For more on the lawsuit as the story develops, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.
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