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Proposed order from ADEM highlights Marion water issues

State’s environmental management agency could impose fines if city fails to act on proposed plan of action for aging water system

After years of struggles with maintaining a safe and consistent water system, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management sent the City of Marion a consent order which seeks to bring the water system up to date and ensure the City of Marion Water System operates up to state standards. One of the largest sections of this order outlined the details behind some of the Water System’s struggles going back to 2019, both procedurally at the Treatment Plant and structurally within the physical system itself.

In 2019, the ADEM cited 27 deficiencies, mostly concerning some of the hardware and operating logistics of the facility. The report described concerning issues. The sedimentation basins, which gather many of the impurities, called sludge, at the bottom, were full and needed to be cleared out. The sludge removal system in two of the sedimentation basins were not working and the sludge valve (responsible for controlling the sludge and moving it through the pumps) was described as “inoperable.” The front of some of the basins were blocked by tree limbs. The filter surface scrubbers, which remove a filter of waste known as “floc” from the water, were not operating properly. Floc is the result of a process chemically clumps solids and other unwanted things together for easier removal. The inspection found that the flocculation motors responsible for facilitating the process were missing and needed to be repaired or replaced.

The 2019 report also cited issues with facility logistics and maintenance. There were no spares for some of the equipment, and some of the hardware used to monitor the plant’s function were inoperable, making it impossible to get a reading on the plant’s processes. There was no schedule for instrumentation calibration and no distribution system map, documentation the Order asserts was needed to properly maintain the facility.

In 2020, ADEM cited 22 deficiencies.Disturbingly, the report contains, for the most part, the exact same findings as the 2019 report. The sludge valve was broken, the sedimentation basins were full, the pipes that were rusty and worn down the previous year were still in the same condition, and the flocculation motors were still missing and needed repair or replacement. There was still no spare potassium pump, no distribution system map and even the tree limbs blocking the front of the basins were still present. Only one high service pump was working, the same one as the previous year, and the generator was still unrepaired, with no additional generators obtained. After finding that the fluoride equipment was inoperable in 2019, new fluoride equipment had been provided by the Alabama Department of Public Health. The 2020 report states that it had yet to be installed.

The 2021 sanitation survey reported 26 issues with the facility. The findings were still the same in many areas, though there were also some new issues that had arisen. The report stated there did not appear to be enough Grade III water operators available to ensure the safety of the plant. Water loss was in excess of 20.25%. The roofs on several of the buildings were leaking, causing electrical equipment to short out at times. There was no meter to measure backwash water. The facility stated that during its treatment process, it backwashes all three filters on the same day for twenty five minutes apiece. During the inspection however, filter #2 was backwashed for over an hour and still did not return clean water. The facility, referred to as the Permittee during the document, submitted Corrective Action Plans (CAPs) following the inspections, yet was unable to implement many of the needed changes, claiming it required outside funding to rectify many of the deficiencies. The facility told the ADEM that it has been unable to get the funding to make the changes it needs to make.

The Order continues by highlighting some of the costly malfunctions at the plant in recent times. The water outage that occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Zeta occurred due to the lack of working emergency generators, an issue cited in reports dating back 2019. This left the City of Marion under a boil water notice for weeks. On June 30th through July 1st, 2021, the water system experienced multiple line breaks and were unable to isolate the problematic areas due to malfunctioning valves and a lack of personnel. On September 21st, 2021, a valve malfunctioned, resulting in a system wide outage that once again left the City of Marion under a boil water notice. Discolorations in the water were reported for days afterwards.

The Order then addresses some of the water systems needs and its failure to attend to them. The order notes that the Marion Water System comprises over 60 miles of water mains, the majority of which is made of old cast iron pipe which is susceptible to leaks and cracks. The last renovations to the Treatment Plant occurred nearly 30 years ago. The Order states that the facility failed to safely maintain its conditions, failed to correct deficiencies and also failed to provide necessary information in its Infrastructure Report.

The Order concludes this section by stating that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has determined the terms of the order to be “in the best interests of the citizens of Alabama.” The terms of the Order sets a strict time frame with goals and parameters that must be met within 5 years maximum. The Order acknowledged that some of these may be hard problems to solve but that with an issue as critical as this, fixing the water system and making sure the citizens water is safe for use should be a top priority.