State-federal funds speed sewer repairs
Money from $15 million loan slated to be used to clean up up city's antiquated system

Register Staff Reporter

A $15 million mix of state and federal money will cut in half the amount of time it should take to clean up Mobile's antiquated sewer system, unclogging some lines that had led to controversial sewage spills, water board officials said Monday.

Major repairs and upgrades to the system still will take about 10 years to complete, but the loan should free up money that will allow some of those repairs to be completed sooner, officials said.

The Mobile Area Water and Sewer System board will borrow that much from the state's revolving fund and will be able to pay it back over 20 years at 4 percent interest. The low-interest loan is a combination of funds from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly $13 million of it will go directly toward cleaning sewer pipes, replacing or repairing them or performing rehabilitation on other parts of the system. The funds will be added to the nearly $14 million already budgeted this year for system repairs and renovations.

With the loan, much of the system can be cleaned and repaired by 2002 - two years early, officials say.

"By 2010, the system should be in great financial shape and have taken care of most of the needed repairs," said board Chairman Mark Nix. The board is taking care not to put the system so far in debt that it will have to continue hiking rates to pay for repairs, he said.

"Future boards and citizens will be the benefactors of this decision," he said. By hastening cleanup and repairs, he said, the system will have fewer sewage spills and fewer rate increases.

"We explored different ways of borrowing and this was the least expensive way to go," said system Director Malcolm Steeves.

In all, the board has about $146 million in outstanding debt, not including this new borrowing, board Comptroller Sally Berry said. The board will have paid down most of the principal on its debt by 2010, she said. "We will have only $25 million in debt if we don't borrow any more."

The board is concentrating on repairing the old sewer system because of numerous sewage spills over the last 10 years. Already this year, it purchased seven new cleaning and vacuum trucks to suck debris and grease clogs out of sewer pipes. Such clogs often cause manholes to pop open or pipes to break, spilling their contents onto the ground.

The utility also has hired 14 additional people to run those trucks for 10 hours a day.

In addition to the new trucks, the state loan and a recent 10 percent rate increase, the board is borrowing $30 million from Regents Bank to help pay for the needed repairs.

Nearly a year ago, the environmental group Mobile Bay Watch and ADEM sued the water and sewer board separately. Both groups claim the board has violated the federal Clean Water Act more than 200 times by spilling sewage into area creeks and streams.

Both suits are in mediation with the U.S. attorney's office. The goal of that mediation is to determine who should pay for the needed repairs to the sewer system and over what period of time.

When the board, several months ago, first discussed accelerating repairs to the system Mobile Bay Watch Executive Director Casi Callaway said her board very much favored speeding up the process.

Mobile Bay Watch members have said they are not looking for a cash settlement from their lawsuit, but a fix for the system.

Among the projects the board will fund with the $15 million is the replacement of lateral sewer lines running to 800 houses in flood-prone areas. Leaks in those pipes allow rain water in, which overburdens the sewer system and can cause spills, officials say. Homeowners eventually will reimburse the board the $1 million for those repairs.

Also, the board will spend $5.5 million to clean out every sewer pipe in the system and $2.9 million to line a pipe in the Halls Mill area so it will last another 50 years.

2000 Mobile Register. Used with permission.