Federal officials are reviewing the recent spill of 137 million gallons of raw sewage from the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant, as well as the facility's decade of deficiencies that span the service of three Chattanooga mayors.
Mayor Ron Littlefield talked with officials in the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the concerns before last week's spill into the Tennessee River.
"I was in Washington last year with other mayors talking about this issue with EPA and the Department of Justice," the mayor said on the morning after the spill. "The subject there was combined sewer overflows -- which this was that kind of overflow that was accelerated and amplified by the loss of pumps."
A short in electric wires on Tuesday shut down Moccasin Bend's treatment pumps.
How does an overflow occur?
In a combined sewer and stormwater system, rainwater can flood sewers quickly and cause sewage in the lines to flow out on land or into nearby waterways through manholes or street drains.
Regulators' records point to problems at Moccasin Bend and the city's antiquated sewage collection system that combines stormwater runoff with sanitary sewer lines. The method of handling sewage is one that regulators want to change.
In 2009, the plant violated its permit 17 times, according to records. Seven of those violations occurred in September, and five happened in December. One involved another electrical problem, records show.
December's violations were for exceeding the daily maximum allowable E.coli count, despite the use of extremely high volumes of chlorine being used, records show.
Additionally, an unannounced regulatory inspection in December found a seal broken on a test bottle, as well as other chain-of-custody sampling problems related to labeling.
The inspector rated the facility's self-monitoring program "unsatisfactory."
Last week, regulators acknowledged that many overflows didn't result in violations being logged -- including last week's electrical short -- because some things are beyond control and regulators don't try to punish good efforts, officials have said.
Jerry Stewart, director of Chattanooga's division of waste resources, said Friday that, in 2008, Moccasin Bend officials had logged 107 raw sewage overflows from the city's sewage system. Not all of those overflows prompted violation notices, but city officials expect the government to weigh in sooner or later, as it has in other cities.
"We anticipate (EPA and the Department of Justice) will come to see us one of these days. I think it's just a matter of time," Mr. Stewart said, adding that some parts of Chattanooga's sewage system are more than 100 years old.
"All told, we've spent $105 million since 1989 on collection improvements," Mr. Stewart said.
Some $77 million of that amount was paid with fees charged to Chattanooga residents and businesses for stormwater fees, and city officials are hoping to lessen the cost of future improvements with a five-year, $125 million plan to upgrade the way rainwater is collected after it runs off buildings, homes and parking lots. Some commercial rates have jumped from $1,000 to $5,000.
For now, regulators are pretty close-mouthed about pending enforcements.
Tisha Calabrese-Benton, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said a notice of violation state regulators filed against Chattanooga in June has been put "on hold" because the EPA and the Department of Justice want to weigh in.
"EPA has expressed interest in Chattanooga, and our order is on hold while the department discusses the issue with EPA," she said Friday.
She declined to clarify what precisely the EPA and Justice Department are interested in.
EPA spokeswoman Davina Marracinni said she, too, could not comment on the Department of Justice interest or enforcement actions.
"That could, of course, compromise our case," she said.
Ms. Marracinni did say the EPA is aware of last week's spill and is following up on it with state regulators.
DOJ spokesman Andrew Ames said he is not aware of any "public" information available now on the Justice Department's look at Chattanooga.
But he said DOJ has gotten involved in other cities in recent years on long-term sewage treatment problems. Examples include Nashville and, most recently, New Orleans.
Two years ago in Nashville, DOJ announced a settlement expected to cost the metro area between $300 million and $400 million.
Last week, DOJ and New Orleans announced a similar lawsuit settlement that had been on hold since Hurricane Katrina struck.
Mr. Littlefield said Chattanooga's problem is not caused just by Chattanooga, and he is hoping last week's "freak" mishap with an electrical short will help the city more than hurt it in regulators' eyes.
He said Chattanooga is handling the waste from other jurisdictions -- East Ridge, Red Bank, Soddy-Daisy and even towns across the state line in Georgia, where Tennessee regulators have no reach. Yet when it comes to fixes for the decades-old system, and even rate increases for sewer maintenance and improvements, the buck stops with Chattanooga, the mayor said.
"Everything that is tied on to our system contributes to it," the mayor said. "I'm not pointing a finger (at specific outlying cities.) But this isn't just a Chattanooga problem. We could have poured that glowing dye plumbers use in the system in East Ridge or Red Bank or some of the communities even down in Georgia that we treat sewage for and it would have popped up here in the river, out here in the overflow."
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...