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Growing prison population taking a toll on state rivers

By Samira Jafari
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — 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 waste water 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."

Raw sewage

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 Rivers Alliance. Untreated sewage carries dangerous infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic chemicals.

Raw sewage is suppose 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 Rivers 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 waste water 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 waste water in one day, when its permit only allowed 350,000 gallons of treated waste water 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.

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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