Fort Payne pursuing solution to Terrapin Hills sewer issue

Fort Payne City Council President Walter Watson, City Attorney Rocky Watson and Council member John Smith participate in a discussion at Fort Payne City Hall.

The Fort Payne City Council voted Tuesday after coming out of executive session to authorize the firm of Watson & Neeley to proceed with “all actions necessary to enable the City of Fort Payne to pursue the option of taking over the Terrapin Hills Sewer System,” according to City Treasurer Tricia Dunne.

The motion was made by Council member Lynn Brewer, seconded by Council member Phillip Smith, with all in favor to authorize attorneys to proceed. City Attorney Rocky Watson explained that he is talking to system owner David Groat to “look for remedies to relieve a problem that has existed for 30 years”.

Watson has followed the Terrapin Hills situation for years despite the city having no role with the developing, installation, operation or permitting of it. He has done so to stay informed and ensure that citizens are not put at risk.

Attempts to reach Groat to comment for this story were unsuccessful. He was not present at Tuesday’s meeting, as there was no mention of it on the agenda except for a scheduled executive session.

In the past, Groat has deferred comments to his attorneys. Watson said he is also communicating with a third-party private landowner to clear ambiguity over his legal position on the matter. A declaratory judgment in court may be needed to resolve this.

Fort Payne now has three distinct sewer projects in the works, but the Council refers to one as “the Terrapin Hills sewer project” because it positions the city to potentially replace the lagoon by connecting to extended lines and eliminating the need to stabilize the failing, privately-owned system. Work is underway extending the service line from a pump station on 49th Street North (near the city’s new school) to the swerve near the bridge crossing Big Wills Creek on Greenhill Blvd NW commonly referred to as “Dead Man’s Curve.”

Dunne said Fort Payne was approved for State Revolving Fund monies, which are administered by the state for the purpose of providing low-interest loans for investments in water and sanitation infrastructure. Bidding came in at about $4 million.

The City Council pursued the SRF funds at the same March 2018 meeting in which it authorized the issuing of $45 million worth of bonds for $20 million in school construction/improvements and $25 million for general obligation projects. From the remaining $19 million of the bond money left to spend, about $10 million is needed for a separate sewer project connecting the pump station on Airport Road to a pump station near the WZOB radio station. Fort Payne will likely float another bond of at least $4 million for a third sewer project linking the other two together for one long connected sewer system running the length of the city. 

Resolution of the situation would resolve an issue that has periodically come up at city council meetings for decades. 

In April 2004, the Council discussed Groat’s difficulties with a $100,000 security bond requirement to renew his five-year franchise for the operation of the sewer system. The council renewed the franchise and reduced the amount to $50,000, allowing Groat the option of a bond or letter of credit. Watson said the city could grant the franchise without a bond and the city would only be affected if the sewer system had severe troubles causing surrounding homes to face public health problems.

Then, in 2014, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) took Groat to court after an inspection of the system’s lagoon, for which a permit to operate expired in 2011, revealed untreated sewage appearing to flow from a PVC pipe into Big Wills Creek.

ADEM sought a decision to force the installation of new pumps for the sewer’s lift station since the state’s normal enforcement actions had not worked. Watson said the agency’s request for an injunction and threat to cap the outflow pipe of the system was based “solely on the inability of the owner to pay and receive a permit from ADEM.”

Watson’s next step was to file a petition and request the court to allow Fort Payne to intervene “based on the fact that we have knowledge and information and belief that they are going to request some action against Groat, which will have an effect on a great number of citizens, and we need to be in a position to be heard on that. By getting in there, everything that gets filed in the case, we will get notice of.”

During one work session, Watson read a statement on behalf of the city council that said if ADEM were to obtain an order, and carried out the threat to cap the outflow pipe, this would haved rendered in excess of 190 homes in at least three subdivisions in north Fort Payne “uninhabitable, unmarketable and worthless.”

City officials then met with ADEM staff members and Groat in Fort Payne, hoping to find a permanent solution to the problem.

In March 2015, Fort Payne residents were urged in public health advisory issued by the DeKalb County Health Department to avoid the waters of Big Wills Creek because of the discharge of raw and partially treated sewage. As a result of the contamination in the water, the Health Department advised no fishing, swimming or contact with the waters in the creek in the immediate area and south of Terrapin Hills. Sewage may contain may types of disease-causing organisms. E. coli in contaminated water can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections and respiratory and other illnesses.

In Dec. 2015, Groat claimed problems had been fixed at a court hearing held before Circuit Judge Jeremy Taylor where it was determined that ADEM had tested the water in Big Wills Creek and determined that the water was clear of sewer discharge.

In 2017, the city was requested to reissue a franchise agreement for the Terrapin Hills system in spite of the fact that ADEM would not issue a permit. The city, on advice from counsel, did not take action.

City Hall has cautiously worked toward a solution while applying short-term fixes. The system is supposed to have two pumps that alternate depending on the flow but neither works, so the portable pump the city installed prevents the overflow of raw sewage into the creek and pumps everything to the lagoon.

Watson will report back to the Council with the results of his negotiations.

In other business, the Council:

• authorized Watson & Neeley to file validation proceedings concerning a retail memorandum of understanding with Roy H. Drinkard concerning the new Harbor Freight store. The Council passed a resolution authorizing the issuance of a tax sharing agreement with the same.

• adjusted the budget to increase salary in the police and fire departments by $100,000. Fire Chief Ron Saferite and Police Chief David Davis expressed gratitude. The Council plans further adjustments across departments, but there was an urgent need to prevent first responders from leaving the city for higher paying jobs in surrounding towns.

• approved $15,000 to pay for two new positions at Glenwood Cemetery to better maintain the grounds. Council President Walter Watson asked for the public’s patience and help in making it easier for city employees, who have difficulty trimming grass maneuvering around floral displays from decoration.

• approved a resolution declaring a vehicle used by the Sanitation Department as surplus.

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