published Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Sewage spill brings fine for city director

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    Staff Photo by Randall Higgins/Chattanooga Times Free Press Mickey Webb of Webb Plumbing and Heating explains the pumps and few other components of the geothermal system that will heat and cool Cleveland High School's new science wing.

The man who oversees the Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant was given a suspended misdemeanor jail sentence, probation and a fine this week in connection with a sewage spill last year that killed fish and fouled water at the Browns Ferry Marina.

Jerry Stewart, Chattanooga’s director of waste resources, was charged with pollution of water in connection with the Aug. 6 spill of more than 100,000 gallons of raw sewage from a pump station into the bay beside the Browns Ferry Marina on the Tennessee River.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officer Bobby Brown said he cited Stewart because it wasn’t the first such spill into the Tennessee River from the plant and TWRA must cite an individual, not an entity.

“He was the representative for the city of Chattanooga,” Brown said.

He said if there are no further spills when the probation period ends, Stewart’s record will be expunged.

“That’s the close-out of this case. I’m just glad it’s over,” Stewart said Friday.

The spill happened when a lightning strike caused a power outage and idled a pump that carries sewage to the treatment plant. The spill killed 3,600 fish and forced live-aboard residents at the marina from their floating homes.

The sewage overflowed a manhole and ran downhill into the marina for 12 to 14 hours. It was the second major spill caused by electrical and pump problems in 2010. The first occurred in January when 130,000 million gallons spilled into the Tennessee River near Coolidge Park.

After the August spill in the marina, Stewart said workers were so busy getting the main plant back online after the lightning strike that they failed to notice the Lookout Valley pump station also was knocked out.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon on Wednesday ordered Stewart to pay $788 to the TWRA as restitution for the dead fish.

He also fined Stewart $2,500 and sentenced him to 11 months and 29 days in the county workhouse. It was the maximum possible sentence and fine for the offense, Brown said.

Moon ordered the sentence suspended on good behavior and placed Stewart on probation for a year, according to court records.

Stewart said the city will pay the restitution and fine, totaling nearly $3,300.

That’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of cleaning the stagnant and bottlenecked bay after last summer’s spill.

Under a state notice of violation from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, Chattanooga spent $44,000 on treatments, rental equipment and contractors to remove sewage and dead fish from the marina, Stewart said.

Dick Urban, head of the TDEC’s water pollution control cq field office here, said the heat and stagnant water allowed the nitrites and microbes in the sewage to stew and consumed all the oxygen in the water, suffocating the fish.

“This is almost like a septic tank,” Urban said in August of the polluted bay.

Normal water oxygen levels needed to sustain fish and other aquatic life is 5 milligrams per liter, but water in the marina five days after the spill tallied less than 1 milligram per liter at all water depths, Urban said.

TDEC regulators imposed specific requirements for a quick marina cleanup, and when those requirements were met TDEC did not issue a penalty, according to state records.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department continue to probe Chattanooga’s sewage and stormwater problems, according to city and federal officials.

“We’re having meetings with them,” Stewart said Friday of the federal agencies. “Other than that, I can’t say anything about that.”

about Pam Sohn...

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, ...

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jpo3136 said...

In principle, it's a good idea to hold an individual accountable. Yet, if we stop there, and pursue no improvements or solutions, then it's another cycle through the blame game.

Do the city director have the influence to command a systematic fix? Do they have the power to change the situation to reduce or prevent these kinds of spills?

Can the city director actually buy millions of dollars in sewer system improvements? Shouldn't this matter be led by Mayor Littlefield? What about County Mayor Ramsey?

Where are the commissioners on this? Is there a sewer repair and improvement plan underway? We cannot have billions of gallons of raw sewage spilled in the river, next to the area's premiere playground and landmark parks.

When were spilling 130 billion gallons of sewage at a time, and then there's another hundred thousand spilled later; isn't that an indicator of a systemic problem?

It doesn't sound like it's an error caused by someone flipping a switch the wrong way for a minute. It sounds like were having some kind of large structural failures. As if, is our sewage system capable of routinely handling the strain that we now subject it to? I would only be half-surprised to hear that the system was designed decades ago and is now overwhelmed by usage that was not properly anticipated and prepared for.

If were spilling billions of gallons of raw sewage into the river, if a small spill is a hundred thousand gallons, then maybe we need a system update.

Is our sewer system capable of handling routine demands and common overflows?

Are we adequately training our people to operate the sewer system's pumps and valves?

If not, and I suspect we're not operating an up-to-date state-of-the-art sewer, then there's only so much that the city director can do about it on his own, isn't there?

Are we punishing this person, like a scapegoat, or can we get him to order the updates and improvements that we probably realistically need?

Let's hold people accountable for the operation of their large civil systems, but let's be fair. Does the city director have the authority to make large purchases to command and direct a sewer improvement that would remove these problems? I suspect not. I suspect that this thing is really an indicator of a problem with a multi-million dollar pricetag. Are we being harsh to this person because we don't want to face facts and buy the sewer system improvements that we probably need?

I think we need to look into the systemic problems with Chattanooga's sewers. The storm water tax is probably not even the half of it. We probably have serious problems.

138 billions of gallons of raw sewage dumped in the river. Another hundred thousand gallons dumped in the river. Electrical and pump problems to blame.

What do the engineers have to say? Don't civil engineers protect the public from these kinds of problems?

Do we need to buy a system improvement?

January 29, 2011 at 9:30 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

Excuse me, County Mayor Coppinger. Or whomever got appointed in that backroom deal.

January 29, 2011 at 9:32 a.m.
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