By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Alabama Department of Environmental Management officials announced recently that the agency has awarded $1.4 million of federal funds to West Escambia Utilities (WEU) that will provide much-needed improvements to the ancient sanitary sewer system in downtown Atmore.
Kenny Smith, manager of the utility company that provides gas, water and sewer to Atmore and the surrounding area, said the funds — from the American Rescue Plan Act — will allow WEU to strengthen the sewer lines that run beneath the business district, unlike money from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG).
“With a CDBG, most of the time those have to be in areas where people live,” Smith explained. “We never could get anything to do anything with our sewer lines downtown because there’s no recipients (residents).”
WEU officials at first thought the funds would be in the form of a grant but later found out the money would come from the State Revolving Fund (SFR). Still, it was too sweet a deal to pass up.
“We thought it would all be free money, but it’s not all free money,” Smith said. “It’s actually an SRF loan, administered through ADEM. We were approved for a $1.4 million loan, with 50 percent forgiven. We’re going to get $1.4 million worth of work done downtown, on the sewer system, for half price. So, it’s actually $700,000 free money.”
The SRF funds are to be repaid over a 20-year period at a 1.99-percent interest rate.
“It’s kind of a no-brainer, so we had to do it,” Smith said. “We’ll probably never get an offer like this again.”
The process involves the use of an infra-red camera to locate weak spots in the system, some of which have been in place for more than 100 years. A robotic device will then be directed to the weak spots, and a fitting, like a tube sock, will be placed over those spots and will be sealed with either steam or boiling water.
“We’ve got manholes dated 1914,” Smith said. “Most of it is terra cotta pipe, and every three feet there’s a joint with oakum or whatever they had at the time — there’s some concrete — packed around it.”
Details of the sewer rehab, which probably won’t get under way for another year, have not been finalized, but preliminary plans call for pipes to be shored up beneath Main Street, as well as portions of Pensacola and Carver avenues, South Carney and Ridgeley streets, South and North Trammell Street, 2nd Avenue, East Ashley Street, and even some on Jack Springs Road.
“We may end up doing some of the other streets off Carver, but we’re going to try and stay in the business areas,” said Smith, who added that the federal funds were procured after State Sen. Greg Albritton suggested WEU apply for them.
“Sen. Greg Albritton told me a couple of years ago that we need to apply for this money,” he said. “He told me to try and keep it under a million-and-a-half dollars, so I made a quick call to our engineer and asked him for ballpark numbers for lining. He took a poke at it on the dollar amount, and I drew up a letter asking for $1.4 million. I took it to his (Albritton’s) house on a Saturday, and he was very welcoming. I certainly thank him for telling us to do this, giving me the heads-up.”
The WEU manager said the utility has no plans to increase rates because of the loan.
“I don’t see us doing anything, as far as increasing prices, because of this,” he said, reiterating that the deal will be beneficial to the entire city. “We’ve had SRF loans before, but we’ve never had anything forgiven. We’re going to be able to get to the business areas that never qualify for CDBG. That’s why we had to move forward.”
“It’s going to be a great thing,” Mayor Jim Staff said. “There won’t be any more mildew in the houses, and the streets won’t flood. It’s going to dry it up.”