ADEM representatives met with a group of about 15 state, county and city officials to discuss the issue on Tuesday, said state Sen. Jerry Fielding, D-Sylacauga.
“ADEM expressed that it would be necessary to turn the situation over to the Environmental Protection Agency if it doesn’t get worked out locally,” Fielding said.
ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes said the information he can share is limited because ADEM has pending litigation with REEF.
“With that being said, the department has and will continue to communicate with affected stakeholders in an effort to identify viable solutions to the issues related to the REEF facility,” Hughes said.
REEF, which is in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, failed to comply with ADEM air and water standards and currently owes the department more than $492,000 in fines.
About 13 million gallons of industrial wastewater remain at the Twin Street facility, which has essentially been closed since June 2010 when the Sylacauga Utilities Board stopped accepting its discharges.
The Utilities Board determined discharges from REEF caused the J. Earl Ham treatment plant to violate its permitted levels of Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen, or organically bound nitrogen and ammonia.
Utilities Board water quality supervisor Kenny Cates said treating REEF’s wastewater remains “a substantial risk” for the J. Earl Ham plant. However, he said several possible solutions were brought up at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The main option we discussed was to find a way to pre-treat their waste before it is discharged to our treatment plant,” Cates said. “We don’t know how that would be done, but it is being discussed.”
Fielding said he would prefer a local solution, as involving the EPA could potentially have negative consequences on the area’s industry.
“Oftentimes, the federal government takes over a situation and steps on a lot of toes to take care of it,” he said. “They would first look to REEF to help pay for the cleanup, but of course REEF is in bankruptcy. They would then turn to any industry that discharged into those facilities. This could impact our industry and make it more difficult for them to survive, and we don’t want that.”
Rep. Ron Johnson, R-Sylacauga, said the cost of cleanup ranges from about $5 to 30 million.
“For some reason, there is a tremendous difference in cost depending on whether it is handled at the local or federal level,” Johnson said. “If everyone cooperates, it would cost $5 to 10 million, and if the EPA has to step in, it would be $10 to 30 million.”
In May, Gov. Robert Bentley signed an act intended to prevent situations like this from occurring in Alabama again.
The act, which Johnson introduced in this year’s legislative session, requires certain centralized waste treatment facilities to post a performance bond or other financial insurance in an amount sufficient to properly close the facility if it were to cease operations or fail to comply with state environmental regulations.
Johnson said the act is similar to what hazardous waste and gas treatment facilities have in place.
“Several groups already have a plan like this; just not industrial waste treatment plants,” he said. “We may have to tweak it a little, but the ADEM people were happy with it.”
Johnson said the act takes the burden of cleanup off the city, county and other related parties when a treatment plant closes.
“We wouldn’t have to do like we’re doing now and wonder who is going to clean it up, because the fund would pay for it,” he said.
Although no solution was reached at Tuesday’s meeting, Fielding said it was “quite informative” and that ADEM encouraged the conversation to find a resolution.
“I would certainly like to see players in the Sylacauga community work out an agreement,” Fielding said.
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.