The Dirty Burg: Hattiesburg’s Sewage System and the Environmental Implications

Citizens of Hattiesburg, MS, deserve to spend their clear sunny days in the midst of fresh air. Unfortunately, for many of the citizens in East Hattiesburg, enjoying the “fresh” air is nearly impossible because of the pungent smell that has been invading the city. As the years have passed, the smell progressively permeated farther and farther into the city, indicating that the problem is only getting worse. Not only is this smell hindering the citizens that reside in East Hattiesburg, but it is also affecting the region’s businesses. With Hattiesburg’s downtown district distraictgrowing at such a rapid rate, it would be a shame for shoppers and entrepreneurs to stop investing in the historic downtown because the smell is too much to bear. Hattiesburg needs a solution. The cost, time span, and especially the sustainability of each solution need to be explored, along with their respective pros and cons, to establish which system Hattiesburg needs. During my research, I have concluded that sustainability should be prioritized over cost or time-span; therefore, whichever plan is the most sustainable is the plan Hattiesburg should implement.

Hattiesburg’s current sewage treatment system, designed in 1960, includes a 400-acre lagoon system that was “one of the best and innovative solutions of its time” (City of Hattiesburg). Although it was created for a growing population and growing industries, the city’s actual, exponential growth has caused this aged lagoon system to diminish in effectiveness. According to Hattiesburg’s Department of Engineering, Hattiesburg implemented a three part process in 2010 to fix Hattiesburg’s sewage problems: begin pre-treatment of industrial wastewater, acquire a new aeration system, and dredge the lagoons to remove sludge buildup. All three plans were put into action, yet now in 2014, Hattiesburg has put four years and $15 million into projects and has yet to implement a system(Morgan). According to the Gulf Restoration Network, a group dedicated to restoring the natural resources of the gulf region, our lagoons continue to release pollution into bodies of water such as the Leaf River, Bowie River, Pascagoula River, and even the Gulf of Mexico that are regularly used for swimming, fishing, and boating.

The Gulf Restoration Network sued Hattiesburg in March 2012 for this atrocious amount of pollution. Andrew Whitehurst, Water Program Director, condemns Hattiesburg’s sewage system; as he explains, “The city’s own records clearly show thousands of violations of pollution standards, including for fecal coliform bacteria, biological oxygen demand and total supplemental solids. Local communities are tired of dealing with the foul air from these sewage treatment facilities and the pollution in the Bouie and Leaf rivers” (Associated Press). Whitehurst’s hopes were to move this process along by bringing Hattiesburg’s actions to the attention of the Mississippi court. Gulf Restoration Network’s hard work paid off when Hattiesburg was given a deadline. Racing against a 2017 deadline (given in 2012) to meet the new requirements given by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Equality, Hattiesburg needs a quicksolution (Breland, “Hearing”). Fortunately, Pine Belt developer Bennett York has come as Hattiesburg’s savior.

Bennett York stepped forward, offering his company, Groundworx, and a method that has worked on small-scale locations such as Hattiesburg’s Canebrake Country Club and the Bellegrass community. This local developer believes he can fix Hattiesburg’s smell with a large-scale land-application disposal method to dispose of treated wastewater. Hattiesburg immediately made plans to implement this system and signed a 30-year, $140 million contract with Groundworx to construct and implement a land-application system to treat Hattiesburg’s sewage (Associated Press). In addition to ridding Hattiesburg of the smell, it is also said to stop dispersing treated water into local rivers like the Leaf River. This plan sounds effective, but how likely is its enactment and adoption by Hattiesburg?

In order to find out if this new land-application system is the best fit for Hattiesburg’s citizens, businesses, and sustainability, other options need to be explored and compared. These treatment alternatives have to meet the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Equality (MDEQ) requirements by the deadline of summer 2017 imposed by MDEQ (Associated Press). According to Bert Kuyrkendall, the Hattiesburg Director of Engineering, the new requirements entail Hattiesburg to limit the amount of nutrients that are dispersed by the current lagoon system to two milligrams per liter of wastewater. He explains, “When we say nutrients, we are talking about phosphorus, nitrogen– things that organisms in the receiving waters eat. They like to consume it, but they use up oxygen.” There were three options presented: a mechanical treatment plant, a polishing treatment plant, and land application, similar to the plan presented by Bennett York (Associated Press).

The first system presented was a mechanical treatment plant. According to Bert Kuyrkendall, “…a lot of our cities our size correctly have [it]. Basically, it would involve scrapping the entire lagoon system and building a brand new mechanical treatment plant” (Leggett-Brown). Mechanical treatment plants involve natural processes in an artificial environment, meaning that the treatment would take place in a series of tanks, pumps, grinders, and other mechanical components. This system is ideal when land is expensive, yet it is the most costly of all the proposed alternatives. Taylor Reynolds, the Director of Wastewater Compliance Systems, Inc., favors other options because they are cheaper compared to “the $4 million to $10 million they are quoted for a mechanical plant” (Leggett-Brown). It is costly, but the results are most predictable. But most importantly, is it sustainable?

Wendel Duchscherer Architects conducted a case study entitled Case Study of Energy Efficient, Sustainable Improvements and Technologies Implemented at Wastewater Treatment Plantsin which researchers focused on nine treatment plants across New York that “have developed economically sustainable retrofit programs that reduced their impact on the environment while also saving money” (Water / Wastewater Retrofits). Some plants served as few as 8,000 residents and some as many as 110,000 residents. Hattiesburg has around 50,000 residents, making us similar to the treatment plant in Niagara County, New York that serves 40,000. According to the case study, the efficiency improvements energy savings that totaled approximately $48,000 per year. An additional $100,000 of energy incentives further reduced the total return on investment of the improvements to 55.8 years. The total energy and operational saving totaled $13,000 above what was estimated in their preliminary study phase. This report shows that this system could not only be altered to help the environment, but could also save Hattiesburg money if the right adjustments were made. If Hattiesburg citizens are concerned about rising costs affiliated with a new sewage treatment plan, their worries will be eased if the system eventually saves the city money.

The next proposal involved a polishing treatment plan. A polishing treatment plan that kept the lagoons in place and operated at an establishment smaller than a mechanical plant would be placed at the end of the treatment process. As for the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) laws that limit the nutrient output, Kuyrkendall comments, “[It] would actually reduce those nutrient limits at the very end of the process” (Leggett-Brown). Unfortunately, he later reveals that the EPA is discussing limits that will be enforced in the future to prohibit the system from meeting the limits, although it could meet the current ones. This system is cheap, but do the cons outweigh the pros? If this system cannot sustain Hattiesburg in coming years, regardless of the low price, other systems should be considered.

The final alternative proposal in 2012 was the land-application method, similar to the Groundworx plan. In this system, the pre-treated waste in the lagoon would be pumped to a land application site where the final polishing treatment would occur in the soil itself. According to Karrie Leggett-Brown, a local Hattiesburg reporter, this system would keep the waste from spreading into the Leaf River and would free the city from any Environmental Protection Act limits. Unfortunately, Kuyrkendall predicts, “a land application site might take two to four thousand acres.”

In order to fully examine the options, the Groundworx land-application plan must be assessed. Unlike the current lagoons, this pre-treated water in the lagoons will be “piped to three spray field sites west and south of the city to be sprayed on pine plantation and hay fields,” according to a Hub City Spokes article (qtd. in Associated Press). The plan even addresses the current lagoons’ discharge into the Leaf River. Before going back into the ground water, the land and vegetation will filter the treated wastewater (qtd. in Associated Press). Although the treated wastewater will not be put directly into the river, the treated wastewater has potential to seep onto neighboring fields and bodies of water with torrential rain or harsh weather. Citizens addressed this concern at a public hearing held by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Equality. Eighty residents expressed concerns about spills, smell, land, and leakage. Rasulallah and Frankie Benton were two local activists that shared concerns about “the effects of flooding on land used for spray fields, as well as if the spray fields would have any odors” (qtd. in Associated Press).

The concerns mentioned at the public hearing are justified. According to a National Center of Biotechnology Information article by Maureen Reilly, there are substantial risks to land-application treatments. Communities located within a 10-kilometer radius of a sludge field are at risk of windborne pathogens. Not only is there a risk of contamination in the air, but ultimately there is not enough research. For this reason, Canada and the United States’ policies on land application have been put under review. The cause of a New Hampshire man’s death is said to be attributed to land application systems. He lived adjacent to a sewage sludge-spreading site and his case went to the New Hampshire courts. Trying to implement a system that is dangerous to the land and residents of Hattiesburg is illogical. The citizens who brought up valid concerns at the public hearing should be applauded. Where would we as Hattiesburg citizens be if we remained silent to let Hattiesburg implement dangerous sewage treatment systems?

Hattiesburg, Mississippi needs to make a choice. The city’s decision goes beyond picking a sewage treatment system. Only 80 citizens showed up to the last public hearing. With a town of 50,000, that is only 0.16% of Hattiesburg. The choices Hattiesburg makes regarding the sewage treatment plan affects every single citizen of the city and even county residents. For example, citizens of the Dixie community would be affected because the proposed pipeline to transport sewage to the fields runs through Dixie (Breland, “City Council”). Hattiesburg needs to decide: are citizens willing to spend more to implement a sustainable system that will not harm the rivers, land, or the people? When deciding which car to buy, it is always ideal to pay a little more for a safer car, especially when family members and children will be passengers. The same logic can be applied to deciding on a sewage system. If spending more means implementing a safer, more sustainable system for the residents of Forrest and Lamar Counties, then that is the route Hattiesburg needs to take. The raise in sewage prices the citizens complained about during the public hearing seemed substantial. I even agreed. “A $20.00 increase seems absurd,” was my initial thought. However, when this price is put into perceptive, it is not as harsh as I and others initially thought it was. Twenty dollars is approximately equivalent to four cups of coffee. Sacrificing coffee every Tuesday is worth saving millions on river and coast clean up, not to mention the health benefits from adopting a more sustainable system. Hattiesburg is sacrificing the well-being of Mississippi land and animals with our current sewage system. Are we ready to now sacrifice for sustainability? A solution I found during my research may mean there won’t have to be sacrifices after all.

Fortunately, I have discovered a sustainable plan not mentioned by Hattiesburg officials. Wendel, a company that specializes in all things architecture, engineering, and sustainability across the United States, has spent the last 15 years focusing on designing a truly sustainable wastewater treatment system (“Wendel-Home”). Wendel recognized that the systems that are over twenty years old are meeting the end of their usefulness. Hattiesburg’s current system was designed and implemented in the 1960’s; therefore the city is past the point of simply waiting for an upgrade. We need one now. Wendel describes their system as “more efficient, cost effective, and environmentally friendly.” What more could Hattiesburg want?

Chenango County in New York allowed Wendel to implement their sustainable system. According to the United States Census Bureau, Chenango County has a population of approximately 50,000 people, just like Hattiesburg (US Census Bureau). Therefore, we can assume that what works for them will probably work for us. Instead of implementing a completely new system and starting from scratch like many plans propose, Wendel systems upgraded the current system. The projected energy savings from this upgrade total around $4,014,000 (Reilly). With only five updates, the annual energy cost savings are: 167,115 kWh annually, $25,000 energy savings, $58,000 operational savings, and $124,000 increased water and sewer revenue. Instead of choosing a system that raises the sewage rates, Hattiesburg could choose to save money instead.

As a Mississippian who resides in downtown Hattiesburg, fishes in Leaf River, swims in the Gulf of Mexico, and smells the lagoons every day, I want Hattiesburg to find the best solution. This smell from the lagoons does not just hurt the environment, but hurts downtown business. Southbound Bagel and Skylight Lounge owner Heidi Hackbruth feels her business is hurt on the nights when the smell gets bad downtown. “Customers aren’t willing to come out all the way Downtown if the air outside smells like sewage,” explains Heidi. Hattiesburg is doing a disservice not only to the environment, but also to their thriving downtown community by not fixing this problem.

As Hattiesburg searches for a solution, the rate at which the smell will be gone should not be the main focus. Saving money, time, and the environment should come first. If Hattiesburg can pick a system that effectively does all of those things, why not choose it? Mechanical plant’s costs outweigh its benefits pros, pre-treatment does not stop the dispersion into rivers, and land application could be dangerous to the land and citizens around the area with the treated wastewater. Spending money to fix our current system in a way that makes it more sustainable is the answer. I have never wanted Hattiesburg to be similar to any other city, but if ridding Hattiesburg of the smell and ridding the rivers of pollution is what the new system modeled after Chenango County in New York will do, we should do it.

Hattiesburg, Mississippi is home to the University of Southern Mississippi, Camp Shelby, the Hattiesburg Zoo, Paul B. Johnson State Park, and other unique places to explore. If this is so, why is the only aspect of Hattiesburg that seems to be talked about nowadays the smell? People are starting to realize that this smell is not just a reminder that sewage exists, but also that it is leaking out into our environment. Hattiesburg officials need to step up and make a decision before the damage is irreparable. Every day the lagoons leak untreated wastewater into our rivers. Every day those rivers travel across Mississippi to the Gulf. Every dayanimals and the land are harmed by Hattiesburg lagoons. Why are the Hattiesburg officials not doing something today?

Ultimately, we as Hattiesburgians, Mississippians, and Americans, have turned into instant gratification junkies who will do anything to save a dollar for a quick fix. The old saying goes, “You’ll save us right into the poor-house,” which is exactly what Hattiesburg has been doing. Little, relatively cheap fixes have been implemented to try to fix our solution, but now we are looking at a multi-million dollar fix that could have been prevented if steps had been taken years ago. Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen L. Hopp discuss America’s disease of instant gratification in her book, Animal, Vegetable Miracle. Hopp explains, “Americans put almost as much fossil fuel into our refrigerators as our cars. We’re consuming about 400 gallons of oil per year per citizen — about 17% of our nations energy use — for agriculture” (5). Instead of eating locally, Americans eat food that has traveled across the country to them. Through this, they sacrifice the sustainability of our land and animals for it. Local food is more expensive, but it’s worth it. Hopp expands, “If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil every week” (5). Just as we should sacrifice a little more and spend a little more to save our resources, Hattiesburg should do the same. If spending a little more means a more sustainable sewage system for years to come, the money should be spent.

With the prioritization of sustainability in the Hattiesburg sewage systems, sustainability in all areas across Hattiesburg could be improved. As a Hattiesburg resident, I know first hand how hard it is to recycle. It is not uncommon to go weeks without the recycling that is put out to be picked up. Not because the workers aren’t capable, but because it isn’t a priority. When Hattiesburg wants to see real change in the workers and citizens, changes need to be made. Although implementing a sustainable sewage system seems like a small step; it needs to be seen as a domino in the big picture. Once the priorities are changed in that area of Hattiesburg, they can start to change other places. It starts with the local lawmakers and city employees. If a transition is seen in the leaders of Hattiesburg, it will be seen in the citizens.

Ultimately, if the new sewage system is modeled after New York’s sewage system, money will be spent in the short run. There will be contractors hired, metal purchased, and time devoted to fixing this system. In the long-run, Hattiesburg will no longer be referred to as the “Dirty Burg” because of the smell, have “Hattiesburg smell” t-shirts made, or have its major attractions overshadowed by the horrible stench. Money spent now will make our systems better for the environment and the community. Sustainability is the priority. In fifty years, a $20 increase in sewage bills will not matter if no one can swim in our local rivers due to the pollution. What can you do to help? Encourage our officials to be willing to sacrifice for the good of Hattiesburg. Our businesses, our animals, and our state depend on it.

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