As Alabama Judge Orders a Takeover of a Failing Water System, Frustrated Residents Demand Federal Intervention

An Alabama judge on Wednesday ordered that the municipal water utility in Prichard, a Mobile suburb, be placed under receivership after witnesses described crisis conditions in the majority Black city due to failing water infrastructure that loses nearly 60 percent of its capacity each month to leakage.

Judge Michael Youngpeter’s ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Synovus Bank, a trustee for Prichard Water’s $55 million bond, represented in court by former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, among others. In the suit, Synovus had asked the court to place Prichard Water in receivership after years of mismanagement that has left the city’s residents with unreliable, costly and sometimes nonexistent water service. 

The Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board “has demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to comply with the terms of the Indenture, to perform critical maintenance to its System, and to ensure proper controls to protect itself from fraud and abuse,” the bank’s lawsuit said. “With each day under PWWSB’s neglect, the System’s infrastructure continues to deteriorate and the risk of further theft and wasting of assets remains.”

Meanwhile, in a separate but related action, the Southern Environmental Law Center this week asked the Environmental Protection Agency to use its emergency powers to intervene to help prevent a potential “disaster” in the Alabama city. 

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The SELC, representing a coalition of local residents and advocacy organizations, asked in a 21-page petition that the EPA assist in funding upgrades to the drinking water system, participate in the receivership proceedings and develop a long-term consent decree with Prichard Water that addresses drinking water infrastructure and contamination issues.

“Petitioners implore EPA to learn from the past and exercise its emergency powers as a preventative measure,” the petition said. “Prichard’s story could easily turn into one of disaster—and without oversight, the Board will continue to protect its interests, Synovus will continue to protect its financial interests, and the community and ratepayers will be left with no defense.”

In two days of hearings before Youngpeter, residents testified that decades-long deterioration of the water distribution infrastructure had impacted nearly every aspect of their lives, beginning with sky-high water bills from the lost water. Flooding has become worse, thanks to storms amplified by climate change and a drainage system already inundated by the leaking water. Prichard firefighters, meanwhile, sometimes watch as homes burn because of inadequate water pressure and faulty fire hydrants.

Youngpeter said he felt the issues in Prichard are time-sensitive and that there is some question about whether the issues in the city of 19,000 can even be fixed. The judge asked that all parties involved work together over the next seven days to outline the duties and responsibilities of the receiver, which Youngpeter said he would likely then approve. 

Synovus Bank has advocated for the appointment of John Young as the water system’s receiver. On the witness stand, Young said he believes he has the experience necessary to help put the system in a better operating position. Young worked for American Water Systems for three decades before working to help fix troubled water systems across the country, he told Youngpeter on Wednesday.

“I would like to be the receiver because I believe I can help the citizens of Prichard,” Young told the judge. “I spent the last 12 years taking the knowledge I had and helping troubled water systems.”

Youngpeter, however, expressed some concern about the potential cost of a receiver. During the two-day hearing, there was discussion about Young’s potential pay rate, including whether the utility will be forced to pay for the receiver’s living expenses. 

When Young served in a similar capacity years ago in Jefferson County, Alabama, he was paid $500 an hour and was compensated for living and travel costs, including the cost of a condominium, according to testimony. Any battle over his pay during his planned stay in the Mobile area, Youngpeter said, remains to be resolved. 

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After Youngpeter’s ruling, Carletta Davis, president of the We Matter Eight Mile Community Association, said in an interview that she’s still concerned about the day-to-day conditions faced by Prichard’s residents. Testimony during the hearing, Davis said, also makes her worry about the future of residents in Alabama Village, a community in Prichard that’s on the edge of collapse. Her organization is among those who have asked for EPA intervention through the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Davis said that discussions of condemning properties because of failing water infrastructure in the historic neighborhood were deeply concerning.

“We don’t think people should be put out of their homes because the utility didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Davis told Inside Climate News. “We will continue to advocate that they can remain in their home, even if they’re temporarily relocated to fix the problem.”

Only time will tell whether a receivership can fix the water system and restore Prichard’s stability, she said, but the fight is far from over. The future of her community hangs in the balance. 

“We will have to wait and see,” she said.

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                Lee Hedgepeth is Inside Climate News’ Alabama reporter. Raised in Grand Bay, Alabama, a small town on the Gulf Coast, Lee holds master’s degrees in community journalism and political development from the University of Alabama and Tulane University. Lee is the founder of Tread, a newsletter of Southern journalism, and has also worked for news outlets across Alabama, including CBS 42, Alabama Political Reporter and the Anniston Star. His reporting has focused on issues impacting members of marginalized groups, including homelessness, poverty, and the death penalty. His award-winning journalism has appeared in publications across the country and has been cited by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others. 

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