Between 2008 and 2013, Greenville violated the national Clean Water Act hundreds of times, spilling raw sewage into many of its creeks, rivers and bayous, according to a lawsuit brought by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 28.

On Wednesday, a federal judge finalized an agreement between the city and the EPA to repair and modernize its sewer system at an approximate cost of $22 million.

The city has begun some of the work, but does not yet have funding for all the repairs.

“We realize we have problems, but we also have limitations on what we can do, given all the negative, depressing but undeniable statistics about what our situation is,” said Andy Alexander, attorney for the city of Greenville. “But I think over a two-year period we finally convinced the EPA that we’re trying to do the right thing.”

Despite their name, these Sanitary Sewer Overflows occur when raw sewage spills into a body of water or onto land before it reaches a sewage treatment plant. According to the Department of Environmental Quality, this is a national problem, usually the result of a city growing too quickly for its aging infrastructure to keep up.

But Greenville’s problems come from population loss. Like many towns in the Delta, Greenville has watched large swaths of its population vanish in the past three decades, going from a high of more than 45,000 in 1990 to just 32,000 in 2014, according to the Census Bureau.

Downtown Greenville, which has suffered significant population losses since the 1980s.
Downtown Greenville, which has suffered significant population losses since the 1980s.

“So we have all of this infrastructure that we still have to maintain, with two-thirds of the tax base that we used to have. It’s a tough situation,” said Alexander. “Every town in the Delta is having this problem.”

The EPA indicates that many Mississippi cities face this hazard but would not specify how many.

Greenville has six years to complete the repairs, starting April 6, the date the partial consent decree was signed. At that time the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Environmental Quality will assess the state of the sewage system. They will also wait until then to determine how much, if anything, Greenville will be fined for their previous violations.

“The reason for that was partially on getting the municipality to go ahead and start work on improving the system, as opposed to fining them and them not having money to make the repairs,” said Maurice Horsey, Chief of Municipal and Industrial Enforcement at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even without fines, however, Greenville’s ability to pay for these repairs remains a question, Alexander said, because lack of money is what caused the problems in the first place. He said city officials are looking into grants but that raising sewer rates is likely.

“Which is a real hot button issue here because for a substantial portion of the population, that’s another $15 dollars a month, and that’s a real issue to someone on a fixed income,” Alexander said. “Raising rates will be the last alternative, but I think only a fool and a liar would say we’re not going to raise rates.”

According to the complaint, Greenville’s violations fall into four categories. The first are the sanitary sewer overflows. The city also failed to maintain and properly operate its sewer system, and its treated water contained higher levels of pollutants than allowed in the Water Pollution Control Permit granted by the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Any of these violations are required to be reported to the DEQ,” said Les Herrington of the Department of Environmental Quality.

But Greenville reported only a handful of them, according to the complaint.

“They basically told us they’d had about nine overflows, and when we went on our inspection and looked at other data sources we found records of hundreds, if not thousands, of SSOs,” said Brad Ammons, an environmental engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA initially uncovered these violations in January 2013 as part of the National Enforcement Initiative, evaluating the sewage infrastructure in cities across the country. Greenville initially stood out because the city had reported only a handful of violations to the Department of Environmental Quality.

Without accurate records from the city, Ammons said, they determined the number of violations primarily by combing through complaints, which he admitted makes it difficult to come to a precise number. Because of the statute of limitations, the Environmental Protection Agency was only allowed to examine records dating back to 2008.

Greenville, which is not required to admit fault according to terms of the decree, argues that these numbers are inflated because many of the sanitary sewage overflows came from the private sewer lines that connect the city’s pipes to homes. The city is not responsible for maintaining these lines.

“We changed everything about the way we report this past June,” Alexander said. “The SSOs have dramatically decreased. The only thing that’s changed is that we’re keeping better records.”

In the meantime, Greenville says it has already begun repairs.

“We plan to totally comply with it,” Alexander said. “And if we run out of money – I don’t know. But we certainly would not intentionally fail to comply.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.