By Samira Jafari
The Associated Press
Prison overcrowding has taken a toll on inmates, guards, infrastructure and budgets, but there's a victim that gets little attention: Alabama's rivers.
With the growth of the state inmate population, several prisons at times dump nearly twice the amount of allowable raw sewage byproducts into Alabama's tributaries -- putting aquatic life and humans at risk.
"Nobody wants raw sewage in the rivers. It's a big, stinky mess," said Nelson Brooke, head of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a pollution watchdog group that monitors sewage dumpers along the river, running from west Alabama to north of the Birmingham area.
Prison officials say the sewage levels have gotten out of hand because the prisons aren't designed to handle the brimming population -- now at more than double capacity with 28,000 inmates -- and they don't have the funding to update their self-operated wastewater management facilities.
The "wastewater treatment facilities are aging and were built to accommodate original design capacities," said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections. "Inmate populations in excess of designed capacity place enormous stress and maintenance requirements on all areas of ADOC infrastructure, including wastewater treatment plants."
The prisons are dumping extremely high levels of toxic ammonia and fecal coliform, parts of raw sewage that produce dangerous levels of bacteria, suck up oxygen and result in heavy algae, according to Alabama River Alliance. Untreated sewage carries dangerous infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic chemicals.
Raw sewage is supposed to flow into wastewater treatment plants. But aging sewage collection systems, like those operated by the prison system, are riddled by broken, leaking or overloaded pipes that allow untreated sewage to be dumped into the environment, according to the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
"This poses a problem for people who swim in these waters and aquatic life," said April Hall, watershed protection specialist for the Alabama River Alliance.
"Raw sewage needs oxygen to break down," she added. "Dissolved oxygen is a very important way to look at the health of water. ... It affects all those critters that live in the bottom of the creek and plant life."
Concerns by water conservationists spurred two lawsuits by the attorney general's office against the prison system on the river pollution issue. However, environmentalists and the state's attorneys say they don't want to penalize the Department of Corrections, which has violated wastewater permits for years.
"We're mainly interested in solving the problem, not punishment," said Assistant Attorney General William Little, who filed the lawsuits on behalf of the state and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
The Black Warrior Riverkeeper led the fight against the prison system's poor waste management when it filed a November 2004 complaint with ADEM, alleging that since 1999, Donaldson prison in Jefferson County committed 1,060 violations of the Clean Water Act by discharging sewage into Big Branch and Valley Creek, a tributary of the Black Warrior River.
At its worst, Donaldson dumped 808,000 gallons of wastewater in one day, when its permit only allowed 350,000 gallons of treated wastewater and the plant only could handle 270,000 gallons, said Brooke.
Donaldson, built to hold 990 inmates, has held around 1,500 prisoners, since 2001.
The attorney general's office took over the complaint in January 2005, suing the Department of Corrections to avoid federal intervention, and found that several other prisons were committing similar violations, said Little.
A second lawsuit was filed last August, alleging similar violations by wastewater facilities at St. Clair, Draper, Elmore, Fountain/Holman and Limestone prisons and at DOC's Farquhar Cattle Ranch and Red Eagle Honor Farm.
Little said the most recent lawsuit was taken off the trial docket in Montgomery County so DOC can come up with a solution without facing stiff fines.
"We're in the process of working out some sort of settlement," Little said. "We're well aware of their problem. Everybody knows the Department of Corrections is under tremendous pressure."
St. Clair, Draper and Elmore prisons, named in the second lawsuit, already have been confronted by ADEM before, and consent orders were issued in each case that eased the permit standards. But the prisons violated the new standards, too.
The best option for Alabama's prison system may be to turn over their wastewater facilities to private operators, as Donaldson did last year. The prison contracted its treatment plant to Alabama Utility Services, which spent some $400,000 to upgrade the facility, said manager Chris Matthews.
Donaldson prison currently is in compliance with its ADEM wastewater permit, and Matthews said Alabama Utility was interested in taking over the prison system's other treatment facilities.
Corbett said prison officials are exploring options to deal with excess wasterwater, ranging from contracting with private companies to seeking funding to build new facilities.
"Obviously, (privatization) is working at Donaldson," he said. "I think you're going to have to examine each facility on a case-by-case basis. We're certainly eager to resolve these issues, no matter how it's done."
outdooralabama.com Rivers of Alabama
Cahaba River Federal Wildlife Refuge