Jack West

The City of Tallassee has struggled with wastewater problems for years, but the situation could get much, much worse if a new mega prison is built just outside the city limits. Tallassee is home to roughly 5,000 residents, and the proposed prison would house nearly 4,000 inmates plus staff, almost doubling the strain on Tallassee’s already failing wastewater infrastructure, which discharges into the beautiful Tallapoosa River.

To quickly recap Tallassee’s wastewater woes, the Alabama Attorney General and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management sued the city in 2017 for years of repeated violations of the city’s permit for the Tallassee Sewer Stabilization Pond (sewage lagoon) that discharges into the Tallapoosa River. As a result of this lawsuit, Tallassee entered into a consent order mandating that it build a new wastewater treatment plant to be completed in 2021 in addition to the existing lagoons.

Those efforts are underway with funding at both the state and federal levels, but residents should remember, this new treatment plant was ordered to remedy the long-standing pollution violations for the existing Tallassee system. And that’s if everything goes according to plan with the proposed upgrade. Now imagine placing a mega prison on this system that could double the amount of wastewater Tallassee has to process.

You may hear from the mayor or the state or the private developer of the prison, “Trust us, we will build a brand new wastewater treatment facility for the prison that takes care of everything.” Such promises should be met with skepticism. Not far away in Perry County, the city of Uniontown received $4.8 million in loans and grants in 2012 to address its malfunctioning wastewater system. But the newly designed facility had the same flaws as the old system. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management and professional engineers approved the flawed plans. The money was spent unwisely, loans must now be repaid, and the community of Uniontown is still struggling to solve its wastewater issues while its residents pay some of the highest sewer bills in the area.

To avoid such a blunder in Tallassee, Mayor Hammock, Tallassee Utilities, and any private prison developer proposing to build sewage treatment facilities must be completely transparent with plans for all new facilities and upgrades and must be prepared to show local residents how an already struggling system can handle double the waste.

It is no secret that Alabama prisons are not well-run facilities. As an example of how they handle wastewater, look at Donaldson Correctional Facility in Jefferson County, which, even though it had a dedicated wastewater treatment system run by a private company, violated its discharge permit for many years until taken to court. Valley Creek and its tributaries were polluted by the Donaldson prison for decades, making the area unsafe for swimming, fishing, and other recreation. We should not let this happen in Tallassee.

Tallassee is the “Treasure on the Tallapoosa,” and the river has given life to this community since its inception. Tallassee depends on the river for its drinking water supply, and the river receives the city’s treated wastewater, which then flows downstream to other communities that depend on it as well. It is important to remember that we all live downstream of somewhere, and for the sake of Tallassee and its downstream neighbors, every effort should be taken to ensure the proposed prison does not flood the river with pollution and partially-treated wastewater.