Choccolocco Creek

Choccolocco Creek upstream of the Tull C. Allen Wastewater Treatment Center in Oxford.

TALLADEGA COUNTY -- The lawsuit brought by Coosa Riverkeeper, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the state Attorney General’s Office against the Oxford Water Works and Sewer Board has been resolved.

The agreement between the parties, which was filed in Talladega County Circuit Court earlier this week, runs more than 40 pages but includes a joint public statement from all of the parties involved.

Two suits were brought against the Oxford Water Works and Sewer Board in 2016 and revolved around the Oxford Tull C. Allen Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharges treated water into Choccolocco Creek.

Coosa Riverkeeper brought the original suit, and the state agencies followed with another. They were eventually combined into one.

The parties “reached a settlement in the two related suits regarding claims against the board under the Alabama Water Pollution Control Act and the Clean Water Act,” according to the joint statement.

“As part of the settlement agreement, the board has agreed to pay civil penalties and litigation expenses, and fund a comprehensive engineering analysis by an independent engineering firm and will implement all plant improvements recommended in the report,” according to the statement. “In addition, the board will make infrastructure upgrades and improvements to operations and maintenance, including replacing force mains and older manholes, replacing and automating the disinfecting system, installing a new mobile monitoring system and operation software, and undergoing an independent audit of plant sampling procedures.

“The board has also agreed to fund an independent collection system analysis, which will identify leaking pipes, and prioritize those that require immediate attention. Informed by the collection assessment report, the board has agreed to complete future projects over the next five years that will limit the level of rainwater infiltration in the system.”

Coosa Riverkeeper threatened to sue the Oxford Water Works in August 2016, alleging it had violated the Clean Water Act more than 800 times in three years. Specifically, the board was accused of failing to monitor industrial runoff and sewage, leading to unacceptable levels of bacteria (including E. coli), chlorine and formaldehyde into Choccolocco Creek.

ADEM and the Attorney General’s Office got involved in October 2016 and sued the board in Talladega County Circuit Court, making the same allegations as Coosa Riverkeeper. The treatment plant is in Talladega County.

Later that same month, Coosa Riverkeeper also filed suit in federal court. All parties agreed to have the federal suit dismissed as part of the agreement in state court.

According to the terms of the agreement, the board agreed to pay civil penalties totaling $74,000.01, with $24,666.67 each going to the state General Fund, the state Attorney General’s Office and ADEM.

The board was also ordered to pay $50,000 in fees to the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented Riverkeeper in the state and federal suits.

In spite of the penalties and agreements to address numerous, apparently longstanding, problems at the plant, the joint statement says, “The settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing or liability regarding any claims which were disputed by the board or the matters addressed in the settlement.”

The statement also adds, “Subject to the terms of the settlement agreement, Coosa Riverkeeper has agreed to forbear any further legal actions regarding the operation of the plant and its related collection systems during the next five years.

“All public comments, statements or releases to the media by Riverkeeper and defendant announcing this agreement and resolution … shall be limited to the joint statement.”

In June 2018, another suit was filed against the board and two businesses, Kronospan and NGC, alleging similar violations, by some 40 residents and a business owner who claim the pollution damaged their property and caused them pain and suffering. According to court records, that case is still pending.

Chad Woodruff, who is now Talladega County’s presiding circuit judge, had represented the plaintiffs last year but had to step down from the case before being sworn in in January.

The 2018 case is set for a hearing before Circuit Judge Will Hollingsworth on March 7, according to court records.

The plant has been operated by Oxford since 1992, according to the pending complaint.

“Throughout its history, it has displayed a continuous pattern of improper discharges of inadequately treated sewage into the Choccolocco Creek … resulting in elevated and unsafe levels of certain bacteria, including but not limited to E. coli,” the complaint says. “In addition, Oxford has continuously and repeatedly discharged unsafe chemicals, including but not limited to chlorine and formaldehyde, into Choccolocco Creek” at the same point.