Water Watchers catch industrial sludge release into creek

Emails and phone calls were abuzz last week among Auburn-area water watchers and creek residents who detected something amiss with their beloved Saugahatchee Creek. They reported to the Alabama Water Watch program office that the creek was running black, and that it had a foul odor! AWW staff promptly contacted municipal authorities, and both Auburn and Opelika sent out teams to figure out what was going on.

The Saugahatchee Creek Watershed

The City of Opelika crew, after extensive recon, tracked down the culprit of the black water to the old West Point Pepperell textile mill site located along the Pepperell Branch (creek) in Opelika. The mill was closed in mid-2007 when the company relocated overseas, coinciding with the termination of their industrial effluent into the Pepperell Branch.

AWW-certified water monitors have routinely tested sites on the Pepperell Branch, and downstream on Saugahatchee Creek monthly for many years. It was one of these water monitors, a long-time member and former President of the local volunteer monitor group, Save Our Saugahatchee, along with a streamside resident in the Ashton Lakes subdivision (in Auburn) who sounded the alarm and alerted authorities to the assault on local creeks. Thanks to these alert eyes (and noses), prompt action was taken, which is ongoing, led by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, to right the wrong done to our Saugahatchee!

SOS founders at Hwy 188 Bridge on Saugahatchee Creek – 1997
SOS volunteers conduct an annual stream cleanup of the Pepperell Branch and many other streams in the Saugahatchee Creek Watershed.

Excerpt from scientific paper (Source: Department of Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech University, see http://infohouse.p2ric.org/ref/01/00469.pdf, page13).


Provost (1992) agreed with Smith (1989b) to divide waste in four different types: hard-to-treat, highly dispersible, hazardous and toxic, and large volume wastes. Each of these four waste types can be found in the textile industry, and they all have their specific characteristics. Treatment is easiest if each waste is considered separately before being combined.

Difficult-to-treat wastes may include dyes, metals, phenols, toxic compounds and/or phosphates. This type of waste is resistant to conventional biological treatment, can pass through the treatment system and end up in the receiving stream where it sometimes causes toxic effects. It is therefore important to minimize through chemical substitution the use of chemicals which result in difficult-to-treat wastes. If no useful substitute can be found for the problem chemical(s), the chemical(s) should be reused, recycled or segregated from the main waste stream and treated separately.

Click here for ADEM press release

Click here to explore SOS data collected on the Pepperell Branch and Saugahatchee Creek

For follow-up:

Check out the O-A news coverage:

ADEM investigates sludge spill in Opelika

Local water groups contacted following sludge spill

ADEM files cease and desist order regarding Opelika sludge spill; parties respond

And television coverage:

State officials examine sludge spill in Opelika

Update on sludge – supposedly found safe to eat!

Check out on-site picture of the ditch that drained the lagoon sludge into Pepperell Branch