On April 21, 2017, Alabama’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC) denied a petition from nine water protection groups asking for better public notification of sewage spills and overflows. While refusing to initiate rulemaking to address the request, the EMC decided to study the issue and return to the problem at a later date.

Citing concerns that a requirement that the public receive rapid and widespread announcements of incidents could place an undue burden on plant operators at a time of crisis, the EMC did keep open the opportunity for additional regulations.

In response to the EMC’s discussion about the possibility of achieving effective communications that are also efficient and low-impact on waste water treatment plant resources, David Butler, Cahaba Riverkeeper, informed the EMC, “With a staff of two, we were able to inform 70,000 citizens within 5 hours about a spill on Bucks Creek in 2015.” Butler explained that enlisting the assistance of mass and social media achieved the goal at minimal cost. A combination of Facebook and Twitter posts alerting the public about the spill were shared and retweeted numerous times, spreading the word quickly. Local television stations picked up the news and increased the information’s coverage.

Alabama Rivers Alliance, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Cahaba Riverkeeper, Choctawhatchee Riverkeeper, Coosa Riverkeeper, Friends of Hurricane Creek, Little River Waterkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper, and Tennessee Riverkeeper submitted the petition, which was publicly supported by dozens of other conservation and recreation groups.

Wastewater treatment plans are required by Alabama law to “immediately” notify the public of sewage spills, but there are no specific procedures provided about the specific time by which the notification should be taken nor specific steps to be taken to do so. Without such directives, notification typically occurs after another agency, such as one of the water protectors, learns of the spills and presses for announcements.

For a copy of the petition, click here.

To see the 2016 interactive sewage spill map to check out where spills occur in your community, click here.