Huge sewer bill looms for Chattanooga, taxpayers; consent decree to be announced

photo Heavy rain or pump failures can cause overflows in Chattanooga's combined sewer system, sending sewage into the streets and the Tennessee River. The city is about to unveil a consent decree under which it will spend potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to repair and refurbish the sewer system to lessen water pollution.

WHAT'S NEXTThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice are expected to file a consent decree Tuesday ordering Chattanooga to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on repairs to the city's sewer system.

A federal order that could cost Chattanooga hundreds of millions of dollars for sewer fixes will be made public this week.

It will involve work to revamp the city's wastewater treatment plant and hundreds of miles of underground sewer lines and alleviate system failures that have plagued the city for nearly a decade.

"We anticipate it will be filed on Tuesday, and it will be open to the public at that time," City Attorney Mike McMahan said Friday.

The negotiated agreement will place the city on a strict timetable stipulating when changes must be implemented, said Jerry Stewart, director of the city's waste resources division, which oversees the sewage treatment plant. He said he could not give details on the timetable yet.

But, "once that thing comes out, we're on the clock," he said.

Chattanooga officials, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and the Tennessee Clean Water Network began negotiations almost 18 months ago after the network sued over environmental concerns.

Mayor Ron Littlefield said the price tag for improvements over the next few years would fall in line with what other municipalities have had to pay to fix their sewer systems.

"It will have an estimated cost, but we're not ready to talk about that," he said.

City officials have signed a nondisclosure agreement and cannot give details of the consent decree. Tuesday is the deadline for all signatures to be on the agreement.

Stephanie Matheny, attorney for the Tennessee Clean Water Network, a Knoxville-based conservation group, said the decree basically will act as a work order directing what needs to be done to repair and improve the city's 130-year-old sewer system.

"The agreement is more than 100 pages long," Matheny said last week.

EPA spokeswoman Davinni Marraccini said in an email that as part of the process, two public meetings were held "to understand the impact of sewage overflows on the community."

Marraccini said more details will come at a later date.

Similar agreements

In 2008, Nashville and Department of Justice officials announced a settlement expected to cost the metro area between $300 million and $400 million.

That cost has escalated to about $1.2 billion, according to Stewart.

A similar EPA action against Knoxville resulted in an order for a $540 million fix there.

A recent Memphis agreement calls for about $200 million in fixes.

Chattanooga is a smaller city, but it has the added problem of combined sewer and stormwater systems in its oldest areas.

"We've got sewers that date back to 1880," Stewart said.

The state in 2011 fined the city $384,500 for problems with a sewer system that it has spent millions to upgrade over the years. A new fine may be part of the negotiated agreement.

In 2005, regulators with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation hit Chattanooga with a citation listing 23 deficiencies.

In 2008, an inspection identified 57 violations of the city's stormwater permit.

The stormwater permit and the sewage treatment plant's discharge permit are different, but they're related because the stormwater and sewer lines are combined in many places.

When underground pumping stations fail because of heavy rain or mechanical problems, the pumping stations and/or the sewage treatment plant are overwhelmed, and the sewage-tainted overflow runs into the streets or the Tennessee River.

McMahan said the decree will have one ultimate goal.

"The main facet is taking the water out of the lines," he said. "You've got to get it down to where it doesn't pop the manhole."

Chattanooga has spent more than $100 million fixing the sewer system since the early 1990s, city officials said. More than that will be on the horizon with the federal decree.

"It's not going to be inexpensive," Littlefield said.