Deadline looms for expensive fix of Hattiesburg’s sewer system

VETOED: Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree vetoed an ordinance that would have raised the city’s sewer rates 150 percent.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

The Hattiesburg sewer system controversy has two smells — the putrid odor of sewage of that sometimes envelopes downtown and the crisp scent of dollar bills from taxpayers.

However, an expensive public-private partnership agreement to deal with Hattiesburg’s sewage problems might be running into a serious roadblock.

According to an amendment to its 2013 contract with Groundworx LLC, the company faces a June 2 deadline to come up with financing or else the city can pursue other options. The deadline originally was April 2 before the City Council voted in January to delay it.

The alternatives might be better than Groundworx, which would charge the city more than $16 million a year to process waste. In the 30-year contract, Groundworx estimates the capital costs of building its system at more than $137 million.

In a city where the median income is $26,328 and 35.7 percent of the city’s population lives below the poverty line, that might be a cost few can bear.

Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree vetoed a sewer rate increase in February that would have increased rates 150 percent. DuPree did not return calls for comment on the city’s sewer issues.

At present, the Hattiesburg sewer system uses a two lagoons that allows treated wastewater to flow into the Leaf River (South Lagoon) and the Bouie River (North Lagoon). Built in the 1960s, the system was damaged during 2005′s Hurricane Katrina. The South Lagoon was renovated in 2011 with a new aeration system from a combination of city funds, a federal Hurricane Katrina Community Development Block Grant and a $536,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through the Department of Energy.

The problems with the sewer system are also the subject of a lawsuit. An environmental group, the Gulf Restoration Network, filed suit under the Clean Water Act in 2012 and a motion for summary judgment in January over the city’s discharge into the two rivers.

“If they can fix the discharge into the Leaf River or eliminate it, that’s what we want,” said Andrew Whitehurst, water policy director for GRN. “How they do it is not as important, I guess, that it just gets done.”

Stephen Mitchell, a wastewater expert who has consulted the city on its sewage issues, said the ideal and cheapest solution would be to continue to use the existing lagoon system.

“There is no comparison between the Groundworx cost and renovating the lagoons,” Mitchell said. “The cost to renovate the lagoons would most likely amount to less than one year’s cost for Groundworx. It is my understanding that the lagoons would have to be renovated to a certain degree for land application, therefore, why not simply completely renovate the lagoons?”

Under the Groundworx plan, the South Lagoon’s discharge, after treatment by a mechanical system built by the company, would be moved through a pipeline to more than 10,000 acres outside the city limit. The treated wastewater would be sprayed onto forest and farm land. The city of Laredo, Texas, uses a similar system. The plan for Hattiesburg’s sewage would be the first of its kind in Mississippi.

Contact Steve Wilson at swilson@watchdog.org

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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