Sewer Tunnel Proposal Returns
On December 14 the Jefferson County Commission conducted a public hearing regarding a county proposal to purchase both the Riverview sewer system in north Shelby County and the Moody sewer system from the Birmingham Water Works at a total cost of approximately $27 million. Hendon Engineering, which oversaw the building of the controversial supersewer trunk line that was halted two years ago after public outcry over plans to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River, recommends tunneling under the river to connect Riverview to the county system. Another consultant, Engineering Service Associates, proposes instead to connect the systems by going over the river, replacing the existing 12-inch pipe that runs under the Cahaba River Road bridge.
At the hearing, Hendon Executive Vice President Bob Holbrook warned that any damage or overflow from the pipe above the river would directly discharge sewage into the Cahaba, the region’s main drinking-water source. Hendon’s plan would connect the Riverview system to the county system by running an 18- to 24-inch diameter pipe beneath the river to a portal of the 12-foot diameter supersewer line. A previous tunnel collapse during construction of the supersewer, which was partly responsible for stopping the supersewer project, has drawn a barrage of protest from critics.
Jayme Hill, executive director of the Alabama Environmental Council, serves on the Citizens Advisory Committee for Environmental Services and did not learn of the county’s proposal to tunnel beneath the Cahaba River until she read it in the morning paper the day of the public hearing. “It was shocking because there has been an increased need for transparency since the supersewer, which was why this citizens’ advisory committee was put together [by the county],” said Hill in an interview. “We’ve been meeting for two years now. That plan from Hendon was prepared and ready for distribution, but for some reason that topic [tunneling under the river] never came up at the early December meeting of the citizens’ advisory committee.”
Tricia Sheets, administrative director of the Cahaba River Society who is also a member of the citizens’ advisory committee, was disturbed that the committee was not notified of the tunneling proposal. Sheets was baffled that Hendon Engineering was more concerned about the risk of a pipe leaking into the Cahaba River than the peril of attempting to tunnel beneath the area’s drinking source. “I thought that was a red herring,” she said of Hendon’s apprehension about connecting the systems above the river. “The bigger issue is that all the pipes in the watershed have a potential to leak. That particular pipe is pretty visible and should be pretty easy to repair,” she added.
County officials argue that purchase of the Riverview and Moody systems would add customers and therefore reduce the amount that ratepayers are currently paying. Rates have increased substantially since the county borrowed $3 billion after a federal consent decree in 1996 forced sewer improvements due to damaged pipes and direct discharge into the Cahaba River.
At the public hearing, community activist Peggy Gargis expressed disappointment at the proposal to purchase the systems. “The general public that I’ve heard are distressed at the prospect of the sprawl and the threat to the watershed that this project would generate,” said Gargis. “We do wonder why a program that has visited so much grief upon the ratepayers and has been run by management which has assisted in that, why you’re still taking the advice of those people [Environmental Services Department].
Adam Snyder, executive director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, also serves on the county’s citizens’ advisory committee. Snyder told county officials at the hearing that he had no problem with the county purchasing the systems, but was disturbed about reintroducing the tunnel proposal. He is also troubled that the county’s Environmental Services Department would continue to oversee any sewer expansion. “I am concerned about the management of the system,” said Snyder. “I have no problem with the county expanding and buying this system. And I think it’s probably advisable to consolidate a lot of these sewer systems — to have one sewer authority. But I am worried about who’s guarding the hen house. I’m worried about the leadership of the Environmental Services Department. I am very concerned about giving them more power and more sewers to manage, as far as their track record has been in the past.”
In October 2004, federal investigators served search warrants at the home of Jack Swann, director of Jefferson County Environmental Services, and Roland Pugh Construction, which received much of the sewer repair work. According to the Birmingham News, FBI agents photographed and searched Swann’s Vestavia Hills home, which has had $350,000 worth of remodeling and improvements, including installation of an elevator, since Swann bought the home in 1997. The FBI also confiscated boxes of records from Pugh’s construction office. County officials learned of the investigation of the sewer program in 2002. &