- Associated Press - Thursday, August 14, 2014

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) - A rural south Georgia city has agreed to make an estimated $830,000 in upgrades and repairs to its sewer system a year after residents filed suit in federal court, saying frequent spills were flooding their homes and yards with raw waste and fouling waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act.

A proposed settlement signed by the mayor of tiny Rochelle and eight residents who sued the city was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, where it awaits final approval by a judge. An attorney for the city said work on the sewer improvements began in late July and is expected to be finished by the end of November.

“We’ve put up with this mess so long,” said 68-year-old John Jackson, a retired Rochelle city maintenance worker who enlisted help from the environmental law firm Earthjustice. “But it makes me feel a whole lot better knowing we won’t have to put up with this stuff much longer. I’ve got high hopes.”

Jackson, who says he’s been shoveling dirt to cover sewage spilled into his yard for 30 years, and his co-plaintiffs in the small community of 1,100 residents filed suit in August last year. They said cracks in the 48-year-old pipes and manholes were letting storm water flood the sewer system, causing raw waste to back up into yards and homes on the north side of town that’s home to most of Rochelle’s black residents.

Earthjustice attorneys sued in federal court, arguing the sewage spills were fouling nearby Mill Creek, which flows into the Alapaha River, in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Mayor James Rhodes did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Thursday. Last year, he blamed the problems in Rochelle, located 70 miles south of Macon, on usually heavy rainfall and called the sewage spills “an act of God, just like a hurricane or a tornado.”

Jeffery Monroe, an attorney for the city, said Thursday that Rochelle officials had begun working on repairs to the sewer system before the residents filed suit.

“The city of Rochelle government is responsive and wants to make sure that all of its citizens have a clean environment,” Monroe said.

Responding to an earlier complaint by Jackson last year, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division concluded there had been a major spill of more than 10,000 gallons of raw sewage in March 2013 and that Rochelle city officials were aware of “frequent spill events” in the past but had made “minimal to no progress” in fixing the problems.

Before the lawsuit was filed, the city agreed to a consent order with state regulators to make an estimated $542,000 in repairs. The settlement in federal court requires even more from the city, including a new pumping station and rerouting of some sewer lines, said Alisa Coe, the residents’ attorney.

“It’s a better fix,” Coe said. “Our hope is this is going to fix the problem.”

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