A 100-year-old Chattanooga sewer system could face fines and an order to upgrade the entire system, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, state officials said this week.
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials said this week it looked likely the order would be in favor of replacing at least part of the system, but they did not know when the order would be issued.
HISTORY OF SEWER
* 1860s-1870s: Construction begins on first city sewer system downtown
* 1952: Construction begins on modernized sewer system
* 1957: City installs first pump station on 23rd Street
* 1960: Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment plant built and primary treatment begins
* 1971: Secondary treatment begins
* 1983: Advanced secondary treatment begins
* 2001: City starts upgrades on Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment plant.
Source: Chattanooga Waste Resources Division
The city saw a total of 106 sewage overflows in 2008, records show. The causes included:
* Debris blockage: 13
* Collapsed/damaged pipes: 8
* Vandalism/contractor mistake: 3
* Root intrusion: 14
* Grease blockage: 12
* Weather capacity limitations: 36
* Electrical/mechanical: 18
* Unknown: 2
Source: Chattanooga Waste Resources Division
Several cities have been ordered to upgrade their entire systems over the last several years. The cities and costs include:
* Knoxville: $530 million
* Nashville: $500 million
* Louisville, Ky.: $800 million
8 Lexington, Ky.: $300 million
Source: Wastewater system Web sites
"We have (an order) under consideration," said Paul Davis, TDEC's director of water pollution control.
Saya Qualls, TDEC's chief engineer of water pollution control, said work has been done on much of the city's sewer lines, mostly in the downtown area. But the system's age still poses problems of overflows occurring during wet weather and flushing raw sewage into the Tennessee River watershed, she said.
"Any work they have done, we will take that into account," Ms. Qualls said. "The problems you have in Chattanooga are problems that are not unique to Chattanooga. They're typical of large municipal sewer systems. ... Those things deteriorate over time."
The deterioration causes cracking in pipes and seals in joints to come loose, allowing more water into systems and causing violations, she said.
A previous EPA order in 1989 forced the city to update some of its sewer lines downtown at a cost of $41 million, said Jerry Stewart, the city's director of waste resources division.
"Hopefully, what we're doing will minimize (impact) and maybe avoid it," he said. "Sooner or later, it will come."
TDEC officials said they have been talking with city officials and hope to come up with a consent decree, basically an order where everyone agrees on what and how the improvements should take place. When an agreement is finalized, the improvements could cost millions, Mr. Davis said.
"It's always big money for a city the size of Chattanooga," Mr. Davis said.
Mr. Stewart said the city has tried to solve problems instead of waiting for TDEC or the U.S. Environmental Agency to tell it how to proceed. For instance, the city conducted a $70 million upgrade on the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant from 2001 to 2005, he said.
In January, the waste resources division also paid $5 million for two companies to conduct modeling and geographic information systems mapping of the sewer system, he said. The modeling will help the department know how to handle growth to the system and it also helps locate problem areas, Mr. Stewart said.
Several large municipalities across Tennessee and the Southeast have been placed under consent decrees to update their sewer systems, records show. Knoxville Utilities Board, which operates the city's wastewater treatment, came under order in 2004 and is now conducting $530 million in improvements over a 10-year period, according to company officials.
Sonia Harvat, a spokeswoman for Metro Water in Nashville, said the wastewater system there could make at least $500 million in improvements over a nine-year period.
"It's going to be at least that," she said.
In Knoxville, rates rose by 50 percent to pay for the improvements. Metro Nashville Council just passed the Cleanwater Infrastructure Program, city officials said, a 9 percent, 8 percent and 7 percent increase in wastewater bills over the next three years to pay for improved sewage lines and equipment.
Chattanooga Public Works Administrator Steve Leach said when he arrived four years ago, there had been talks with TDEC and the EPA about a possible consent decree for the city. He said it's something other communities are facing and would likely hit Chattanooga.
"When something is 100 years old, you're definitely going to have problems," he said.
The best thing for the city is to continue to aggressively find and fix problems, he said. Both Nashville and Knoxville faced fines of more than $250,000 and that is one thing Chattanooga wants to avoid, he said.
"We don't want a fine; we want to put every penny in the system," he said.
He said he did not know if rates would go up if TDEC hands down an order to update the system.
One environmental activist said Thursday that she felt response time for TDEC making a decision on an order to upgrade wastewater treatment seemed too slow and TDEC was too worried about ratepayers' reactions.
Renée Hoyos, executive director of Tennessee Clean Water Network, said the improvements in Chattanooga would probably raise rates, but they'd be better off being done now before costs rise any more because of crumbling sewers.
"You're better off doing it right the first time," she said.
TDEC officials said they have been busy lately with environmental problems such as the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., and a 750,000-gallon sewage spill in Monteagle, Tenn