UPDATED — It ain’t over.
Jefferson County’s efforts to escape an environmental consent decree took a bit of a hit Tuesday, with the U.S. District Court denying its motion to declare the county sewer system in compliance with the decree.
That ruling came hours after the Jefferson County Commission moved to Thursday’s agenda an agreement to pay $2.223 million in fines to the Environmental Protection Agency.
That amount would cover fines of $1,000 for each of the 2,223 sanitary sewer overflows the county documented between December 2013 and September 2023.
County Attorney Theo Lawson said the court ruling doesn’t signal the end of the county’s efforts. He contends the sewer system has significantly reduced overflows and made other improvements in the system.
The Cahaba River Society, which filed the case that resulted in the 1996 consent decree, says it has not been able to confirm the county’s progress.
“In the past, they would bring these … termination requests, just one by one, for each individual sewer basin, each community area,” said Beth Stewart, executive director of society. “They’d give us lots of time to review the information, to ask questions. They’d respond to the questions.”
Stewart said her organization would usually meet with officials from Jefferson County to walk them through all the information. She said the most recent meeting was two years ago.
“We’ve asked for more time (because) we need to do our due diligence,” she said.
The next hearing in the case will be Nov. 17, when Lawson said the parties were due to submit a plan for reaching an agreement.
“By Thursday, we will have satisfied the EPA’s concern (by paying the fines), so we’ll be one step closer. We’ll still operate as we were before, knowing that there was some opposition.”
Lawson said the court will determine what to do next.
“We, of course, will say we’ve satisfied EPA’s concerns, and we feel like any other issues that the citizens have put together (present) no need to have us remain in decree,” the county attorney said. “If you see an order that says, ‘Denied,’ well it ain’t over. It says denied without prejudice and it’s still going forward with the next steps.”
Denying a motion without prejudice just means the court will be open to a similar motion in the future.
The commission petitioned in September to be released from the decree. In the filing, Jefferson County argues that Jefferson County Environmental Services has achieved outstanding performance in meeting the effluent standards of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, has significantly reduced sanitary sewer overflows and has established operating and capital programs that are effective and sustainable for not only the four systems remaining under the consent decree but the entire water reclamation system.
The system consists of nine water reclamation facilities that service approximately 600,000 citizens in Jefferson County and parts of Shelby and St. Clair counties.
There originally were nine county sewer treatment plants under this consent decree. To date, the county has gotten five of those plants out of the consent decree.
Jefferson County currently manages more than 3,100 miles of sewer lines that treat more than 100 million gallons of wastewater per day.
In 2020, Jefferson County was released from its consent decree governing hiring and employment practices. That had been the oldest employment consent decree, spanning 45 years of scrutiny, five years in receivership and two years in monitorship.
“At this point, I think the Cahaba River Society and assistant plaintiffs have asked to be heard,” Lawson said. “But we’re confident, based on the data, it will show that the county is not only in compliance but has far exceeded that as it relates to sewer overflows and for the benefit of our citizens. We make sure that we have clean water and a fully functional and real operating sewer system.”
Where Does the Money Go?
Stewart said that, rather than simply putting money into the EPA’s spending stream, it would be better if Jefferson County put money into a project that benefits the environment.
“The feds could have assessed about $60 million in fines against the county (when the consent decree was declared),” she said. “Instead, the county committed $30 million to buy property and conservation easements along all the creeks and streams in Jefferson County. That’s the money that founded the Freshwater Land Trust, that they have used to protect so much land in Jefferson County.
“We hope that there’ll be time to talk about that with the county,” Stewart said. “The EPA, I think, is open to that idea. We’d much rather see any fines not just disappear in the federal treasury but be used for some really great projects here.”