Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Tuscaloosa sewage carries bacteria and threatens biodiversity

CW / Caroline Simmons
Tuscaloosa has fallen victim to many sewage spills over the past few years.

Experts say Alabama has the most freshwater fish biodiversity in the nation, and the state consistently ranks in the top five for overall biodiversity. 

Scientists at several conservation groups throughout Alabama say that biodiversity and human health are being threatened by pollutants in the Black Warrior River and other waterways throughout the state.  

In September 2023, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management sued the city of Tuscaloosa for discharging elevated levels of sewage into its waterways. 

The complaint found that there was excessive sewage, dirt and bacteria in the Black Warrior River. E. coli, a harmful and potentially deadly bacterium, was found in the city’s wastewater at elevated levels between July 2018 and September 2023. 

Black Warrior Riverkeeper 

Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a nonprofit organization that aims to improve public health and maintain ecosystems in the Black Warrior River. 

The organization’s staff scientist John Kinney said that the sewage comes primarily from sewage treatment plants, sewer overflows, industrial wastewater and runoff. The sewage then carries nutrients and bacteria into the river, where they can wreak havoc on local ecosystems. 

“Nutrients contribute to the proliferation of algae in the river, which has cascading effects for the ecosystem and wildlife,” Kinney said. Some of those algae blooms are toxic to humans, and when they overgrow, they steal oxygen from the water, choking out fish and other native aquatic species. 

These pollutants can make drinking water or eating fish from the Black Warrior River watershed potentially dangerous, and there are several signs warning against fish consumption along parts of the Black Warrior River. 

Additionally, Alabama has the third most endangered species of any state, and Kinney said that pollutants causing the collapse of one species can cause chain reactions with widespread consequences for other endangered plants and animals. 

To protect the watershed, Black Warrior Riverkeeper removed nearly 13 tons of pollutants from the river in 2023 through year-round cleanups where volunteers remove litter from the water. Even though they work alongside several other conservation groups throughout the state, it’s only possible to clean up a small amount of the trash that’s in the watershed. 

Environmentalists take action 

Alabama People Against a Littered State is another organization working to protect the state’s water by reducing pollution. Clean Campus Coordinator Jamie Mitchell said that the organization picked up over 600 tons of trash in 2023, a key step to preventing that trash from reaching waterways. 

Mitchell added that there are several steps students can personally take to be more ethical consumers. 

“We can always try to find ways to be more mindful about the products that we use in packaging,” Mitchell said. “And definitely try and recycle when possible.”   

Mitchell said students should avoid using single-use packing materials like plastic and choose brands with renewable packaging when possible. 

UA Conservation Biology Society President Kevin Shaw said that combating pollution in Alabama’s waterways is both an individual and industrial responsibility. 

“In some of the areas where we’re picking up trash, a lot of it is individuals,” Kevin Shaw said. “A lot of people don’t realize that isn’t necessarily picked up, and it goes out into the Black Warrior River.” 

Kevin Shaw said that industrial plants also contribute heavily to pollution, citing a 2021 incident when local creeks turned black from apparent pollution near coal mines upstream from Tuscaloosa. 

“As far as policy per litter and pollution, I think the city already has a lot in effect,” Shaw said. “But really, it comes down to enforcement.” 

Tuscaloosa addresses river pollution 

Mayor Walt Maddox has consistently defended Tuscaloosa’s handling of water pollution, despite criticism from environmental groups. According to The Tuscaloosa Thread, Maddox said that most of the sewage overflows happened because of historic flooding events, and he said that the city deserved credit for self-reporting its problems. 

“Unlike most communities in our state and most authorities in our state who don’t [report sewer overflows widely], we take the step and do,” Maddox said. “I’m proud of our city for being upfront, honest and transparent and holding ourselves accountable.” 

Maddox added that the city treats 99.9% of the sewage that enters its system and is currently undergoing a $300 million renovation to improve its water and sewer infrastructure.  

Some activists are still unconvinced that the city is doing enough. Hurricane Creekkeeper John Wathen serves as the primary enforcer for the Friends of Hurricane Creek, a Tuscaloosa conservation group. Wathen said that the city’s negligence enables several sewage overflows into its waters. 

“I consistently find open, damaged manhole covers and exposed sections of sewer lines, in some cases right in the floodway of the creek,” Wathen wrote in a February blog post asking residents to petition the city of Tuscaloosa to improve its sewer systems.  

That petition has more than 1,300 signatures. 

“It’s easy to see where the intrusion is occurring and equally as easy it should be for a well operating sewer department to address BEFORE disasters strike,” Wathen wrote. 

According to ADEM’s website, Tuscaloosa’s water and sewer board has received 14 noncompliance violations in 2024. Most recently, on March 26, the city’s Hilliard N. Fletcher treatment plant overflowed after heavy rains causing an E. coli presence five times the ADEM limit in the wastewater from the plant that is emptied into the river. 

On Jan. 9, the plant received a violation for E. Coli presence above the mandated limit after 2.5 inches of rainfall. In both cases, the plant said that wet weather increasing the plant’s flow caused the violations. 

“We are looking at the issues that we have on wet weather events and trying to figure out the best ways to mitigate these issues during rain events,” wrote Steven Shaw, an operations technician for the City of Tuscaloosa, in the non-compliance notification report.  

Kevin Shaw’s best advice for people who want to help fight pollution is simple: Throw it away. 

“The biggest thing is if you see garbage or have some trash, throw it in the garbage,” Shaw said. “Wait till you get home. Wait till you get to your destination.”  

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