Thursday, July 02, 2009

2 JUL 09: Spill, Then Don't Spill

In metro Atlanta, "Big Brown" is business shorthand for United Parcel Service. In horse racing, Big Brown was a Kentucky Derby winner. When it comes to a local sewer department.... well, that phrase might be a code word for big trouble.

BLOG EXCLUSIVE: Your blog has learned a large sewage spill occurred in Phenix City two weeks ago -- and the city has missed a deadline to file a report about it with the state. In fact, it appears city officials never informed the public about the spill. So who knows how bricks of toilet bowl cleaner were dropped, to cover up the smell....

We are indebted for this story to the Phenix City reader who sends us "snail mail" from time to time, usually with questions about the local government. This reached us the other day, dated 26 June:


Please observe the massive unrported sanitary sewage spill into Holland Creek where it enters Georgias' Chattahooche River at the Phenix City Amphitheater. The City of Phenix City has even posted "contaminated water" signs. I thought such spills were supposed to be reported to the media for public safety reasons. This brings another dimension to "white water rafting" in e-coli/fecal infested waters.

The entire river technically is Georgia territory. But notice how quickly east Alabamians want to give it away, when it's a mess.

We've been stacked with so many exclusive stories this week that we weren't able to get to Holland Creek until Wednesday. Indeed, a "water contaminated" sign is posted near the Phenix City Riverwalk. Of course, the larger historical sign on the other side declaring "SIX INDIANS HANGED" doesn't seem to scare people away.

Two Phenix City employees were near the contamination warning sign, seemingly eating an early lunch from the back of a city truck. They knew nothing about the report of a spill nearby. That's no big deal to me - as some people have a job to clean up the Riverwalk, while others clean up the river.

Holland Creek didn't appear that unusually polluted to us, nor did it smell that bad from the Phenix City Riverwalk. But we admittedly did NOT take anything for capturing a sample of the water. We don't want People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accusing us of abusing cockroaches in our kitchen.

We didn't spot anyone rafting on the Chattahoochee River Wednesday, and only a couple of people fishing near the Phenix City Amphitheater. If there was danger, the answer for the anglers was easy. I've noticed several occasions where the Phenix City side of the river is brown, but the Columbus side is clear. No, I do NOT think it's some miraculous message about segregation....

Later in the day, a spokesman with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management confirmed something had gone wrong. Scott Hughes said Phenix City officials reported a "broken sewer line" 19 June. Considering how many sewage spills Columbus has had lately, Phenix City was about due for one.

Scott Hughes had no information about how "massive" the sewage spill was, or even how long it took Phenix City crews to stop it. But Hughes said the spill continued for "a little while" - which to him seemed to mean more than one day. Of course, in some churches a "little while" can refer to years or decades....

Then came the biggest surprise of all - as Scott Hughes revealed Phenix City is supposed to file a "follow-up report" on the spill with ADEM within five days of the incident. That deadline was missed, so an ADEM official plans to call Phenix City to ask about it. Officials can't blame "Streetscape" traffic jams for holding them up anymore.

So what do Phenix City officials have to say about this spill? Good question - and the answer so far is nothing. Our phone message with the city Utilities Department was never returned Wednesday. So perhaps the staff still is containing the damage - this time to their reputations.

By the way, it's still not clear if Alabama law requires Phenix City officials to report sewage spills such as this one. The Utilities Department may assume you're smart enough to notice one - and if your tap water is brown, you should NOT assume it's chocolate-flavored.

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BLOG UPDATE: On the first official day of the Columbus one-percent "streets and safety" sales tax, we took special care to watch out for police officers. We counted two squad cars during our morning jog, including one heading down the Riverwalk toward the Trade Center. Yeow - my running pace is nowhere close to the speed limit.

Now for other items from Canada Day 2009 (yes, I put out my flag)....

+ A new Census Bureau report estimated between July 2007 and July 2008, the population of Columbus increased by 187 people. So if Thunder on the Hooch seems crowded this weekend, do NOT assume it's because base realignment already has occurred.

+ The first group of Third Brigade soldiers left Fort Benning, for weeks of pre-deployment training in California. Thousands of soldiers will head to Iraq before long - and learn compared to the Columbus area, it's a "dry heat." Only hotter....

+ The Ledger-Enquirer reported the Russell County School Board rejected a proposal to give Larry Screws a director's position in the district. Considering Screws already is a Russell County Commissioner, this obviously is a case where a candidate is overqualified.

+ WRBL reported the Miss Georgia pageant will hold an open house this weekend, for people to meet newly-crowned Emily Cook. Anyone offering to trade Cook's crown for a public school teaching position will be escorted away immediately.

+ WKCN-FM morning host Bear O'Brian made his first-ever blood donation. He donated whole blood to the American Red Cross - because the alternative could have left the Piggly Wiggly "Plasma-Palooza" contest in confusion and ruins.

(Bear O'Brian explained to reporters he had never given blood before because he's afraid of needles. This doesn't make any sense to me. Did he become a radio announcer after they stopped playing country music on turntables?)

+ Several new laws took effect in Georgia and Alabama. They include Georgia's "merlot to go" law, allowing you to take home unfinished bottles of wine from restaurants. The number of chefs arrested late at night for drunk driving is about to drop dramatically.

+ The "Trust for America's Health reported 31.2 percent of Alabama's adult population is obese. That's second only to Mississippi - which could explain why a few sportswriters are picking Mississippi to win the Southeastern Conference football title this fall.

Today's main topic was the result of a blog reader's tip. To offer a story tip, make a PayPal donation, advertise to our readers or comment on this blog, write me - but be warned, I may post your e-mail comment and offer a reply.

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The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author -- not necessarily those of anyone else in Columbus living or dead, and perhaps not even you.

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