Sewage spill puts spotlight on city’s aging infrastructure

Hydrants were turned on to dilute the Hollis Creek water affected by a ruptured sewer line over the weekend (Photo by Ryan Phillips/SDN)
The site of the ruptured sewer line at the Ernest E. Jones Wastewater Treatment Plant on Sand Road. (Photo by Ryan Phillips/SDN)
Two pumps delivered from Columbus help manage the overflow at the city’s Ernest E. Jones Wastewater Treatment Plant on Monday. (Photo by Ryan Phillips, SDN)
By: 
RYAN PHILLIPS
SDN EDITOR

A winding underground network of pipes can go easily overlooked to the casual observer amid the wear and tear above the surface.

But city officials say recent problems facing Starkville’s own water and sewer infrastructure are nothing unique to the city.

The latest cause for concern began when Starkville Utilities discovered a ruptured sewer line on Saturday that feeds into the city’s Ernest E. Jones Wastewater Treatment Plant. The break resulted in an undetermined amount of sewage discharge spilling out into Hollis Creek, with city officials citing aging pipes and infrastructure as the likely cause.

The ensuing spill prompted the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to issue a no-contact advisory on Sunday for portions of the waterway leading from the plant to where the creek connects to the Noxubee River.

The no-contact advisory does not impact the city’s drinking water, but advises against coming in contact with any affected water and warns again consumption of anything from the area.

MDEQ Communications Director Robbie Wilbur told the Starkville Daily News that the department’s staff will be in communication with the city until the advisory is lifted. 

“We know the bacteria levels are high immediately after the spill, and MDEQ staff will begin sampling Hollis Creek and the Noxubee River as soon as possible to determine the extent of the effect of the spill and whether the water contact advisory needs to be modified,” Wilbur said on Monday afternoon.

Wilbur said the advisory will be lifted when two sampling results return below levels of concern.

‘THIS DOESN’T HAPPEN OFTEN’

Starkville Utilities General Manager Terry Kemp told the Starkville Daily News on Monday that the oldest sections of the city’s water and sewer system are between 30-40 years old, including the section that ruptured.

After identifying the source of the break, Kemp said the utility company will use 24-inch solid sleeves to repair the line. For the time being, the city will use a collection system at the Trim Cane Water Association to minimize the amount of flow coming back to the plant on Sand Road.

“(Repairs) will be several thousand dollars, but we will give an estimate to the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday night once we see what those sleeves are like,” Kemp said.

Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk, who serves as budget chair for the board, told the Starkville Daily News on Monday that the repair funds will likely come from the city’s water and sewer department in the form of revenue bonds.

“When we issued road bonds, they were general obligation bonds, with the full faith and credit of the city standing behind the debt,” Sistrunk said. “Revenue bonds are funded out of the revenue stream of the enterprise funds, so the water and sewer department will pay for it.”

Funding can be a tricky issue for many communities in Mississippi, highlighting a problem that isn’t just being seen in Starkville.

According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers, Mississippi is facing $2.035 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years.

While unrelated to sewage issues, the report also says the state is in need of $8.5 billion in drinking water infrastructure over the next two decades, which further underscores the current state of much of Mississippi’s underground infrastructure.

On Monday morning, crews had unearthed the area where the incoming line ruptured, and special pumps were brought in from Columbus to help with the overflow. Hydrants had also been opened to dilute waste in the impacted area.

Kemp said crews bypassed the ruptured line that feeds in to the plant, with two operators monitoring two large pumps at the plant.

The Ernest E. Jones Wastewater Treatment Plant serves the entire Oktibbeha County region with a 10 million gallon per day capacity. Kemp said the plant uses between 4 and 6 million gallons of that capacity daily, depending on if Mississippi State students are in town.

The line break was discovered during routine testing, when Starkville Utilities officials noticed leakage based on measurements. Officials were able to lock in on above-ground seepage to pinpoint the area of the break.

Kemp said he did not have a firm number concerning the amount of waste spilled into the creek, but said MDEQ would likely have that number sometime this week.

Officials from the state regulatory agency were expected to be on-site Monday afternoon to begin testing the water in Hollis Creek.

A representative from MDEQ told the Starkville Daily News on Monday that it was still too early to provide hard numbers regarding the spill.

“This is one of our main lines that comes in and you have a game plan, but this does not happen often, like a major failure on some of our collection stuff, but that’s what’s going on,” Kemp said. “So we know what we will have to do in an emergency, but this is not a typical-type failure.”

FACING THE INEVITABLE

As city crews address the most recent infrastructure problem at the wastewater treatment plant, Sistrunk reiterated that the problems are not isolated to Starkville.

To localize the scope of the problem, though, Sistrunk cited a pipe failure underneath South Montgomery Street in February that caused traffic headaches and impacted water service for many in the area.

“To me, what happens is, the infrastructure gets put in 40-50 years ago and once you’ve incurred that initial expense, most places do not plan for the inevitable failure of the system,” Sistrunk said. “We are starting to hit a point in time where we are going to have to make some investments in repairs and upgrade.”

This could likely be done with the aforementioned revenue bonds.

Sistrunk said the bonds are intended to be self-sustaining funds for the utility, that are charged out at a rate to allow the utility company to have the money to make necessary repairs.

“Starkville, like most, is probably under-capitalized to make all of the repairs they need to,” Sistrunk said. “We have been more reactive when dealing with problems when they occur, but we are trying to move toward a plan where we can go in and make more wholesale repairs, get things back up to speed, but it is a capitalization issue, and probably means there will need to be borrowing.”

According to Sistrunk, other larger municipalities, like Jackson, are facing infrastructure problems on a much wider scale, which can put a strain on an already slim budget. The state Legislature did, however, take steps to help remedy the problem in Jackson by allowing the city to have a 1 percent local sales tax.

“If we could have that we could get this fixed pretty quickly,” Sistrunk said.

Kemp said Starkville Utilities has been working closely with the Board of Aldermen to iron out the best approach in addressing infrastructure issues moving forward.

“We’ve been very proactive on the electric side addressing some issues over the years and we have started that same type process on our waters and sewers,” Kemp said. “But you start with a plan then it takes a while to develop and that’s driven by financial needs, too.”

The longterm infrastructure plan for the city, according to Kemp, starts with major work to the city’s sewer system, along with part of its collection system across the city.

“(Sewer problems are) one thing we really wanted to start tackling this summer and next year as kind of a major focus as it relates to infrastructure,” Kemp said.

Sistrunk then commented that it’s not a matter of if, but when the next infrastructure problem arises, which can present a messy, expensive and disruptive burden to city officials and taxpayers.

“I will say we don’t value those services enough … we just take them for granted, so when something goes wrong it’s sort of a shock to us,” she said. “I do think (Kemp) and the utilities department have a goal of developing a plan for how we tackle these and money will be the next issue.”

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