When a 75-year-old Soddy-Daisy woman opened her mail and found a letter from the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority asking her to grant an easement, she wasn't sure what to do.
"It was just all legal terms," she said, asking that her name not be published out of fear of harassment. "I'm worried people won't understand, and I think everyone has a right to know what's going on."
She was one of about 3,000 people to receive a letter from the WWTA asking residents to allow the company to test and repair residents' lateral sewage lines, WWTA attorney Chris Clem said.
The company needs to make the repairs to stay in compliance with federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.
"Now that the EPA has required us to replace and repair all of these service laterals, we have to get that done," he said. "The problem is, most of these service laterals are on private property, and the homeowners own them."
A lateral line is the pipe that runs between the road and a resident's home. To repair the pipe, the WWTA needs each homeowner to sign an easement -- an agreement that the company can repair and own the line.
"When we're done, we're going to own the pipe," Clem said. "Now, I don't think anyone wants to own this pipe — a sewer pipe underground -- because whoever owns it has to maintain it."
The repair required by the EPA costs $3,000 to $4,000 per pipe, Clem said. Homeowners can either sign the easement and let the WWTA pay for the repairs, or they can decline to sign and pay for the repairs themselves.
Either way, it is essential that the repairs are made, Clem said. If the sewer system is not upgraded in the next five years, the EPA could place a moratorium on Hamilton County.
"The EPA said you have to do it right away, no ifs, ands, buts, no excuses," he said. "Get it done, or we will put a moratorium on Hamilton County — meaning no new Volkswagens, no new Amazons, no new subdivisions. Nothing new can connect to the sewer if they put down a moratorium."
The repairs are needed to stop rainwater from seeping into the sewer system. When the system is flooded with rainwater, the system has to handle about three times more fluid than normal. This volume of water can cause raw sewage to overflow into the Tennessee River, Clem said, and is very expensive to treat.
EPA spokeswoman Davina Marraccini said raw sewage overflow presents a serious health risk.
"The public health concern of sewage exposure is centered on bacteria, protozoa and viruses," she wrote in an email. "The discharge of raw sewage can result in fecal pollution, which presents a substantial threat to human health by causing waterborne diseases."
The WWTA is aiming to test and repair about 26,000 lateral lines, Clem said. The 3,000 residents who received letters are just the first stage of the project, and the company hopes to start testing those lines within the next six months.
Homeowners who neither sign the easement nor make the repairs themselves will be fined, Clem said. He said the process is not ideal, but it is the best way to make the repairs quickly.
"The WWTA is not thrilled about this either," he said. "If it were totally up to us, we would slowly go around and make these repairs over 20, 25 years. But the EPA says no, you have to do this quickly."
Shelly Bradbury covers police and crime in Chattanooga and Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She's been with the paper since 2012, working first as an intern and then as a business reporter. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint ...