Questions linger even as commission is poised to OK bonds for new sewage plant

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd
Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd issued a 57-page report last year that was critical of the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) and included stories documenting residents' frustrations with the agency.

However, Boyd isn't opposed to the proposal to build a new, $45 million to $48 million WWTA sewage treatment plant in Harrison.

"It's something that should have been done years ago," said Boyd, who likes the concept - but objects to not having more details. "My problem is I can't support anything I don't know any details about. Until I see any details, I'm not for any tax increase."

County Mayor Jim Coppinger on Aug. 29 stood on the courthouse steps flanked by supporters and proposed the new sewage treatment plant, a new jail and $100 million in county school facility improvements as part of Coppinger's proposal to maintain the current millage rate - a de facto tax increase for residents - that the county commission is expected to vote on at its meeting today.

photo WWTA Board Chairman Mike Moon
photo WWTA Executive Director Mark Harrison

Boyd thinks WWTA should model its new sewage treatment plant on sewage treatment facilities used in Forsyth County, Ga., which has a number of small sewage treatment plants scattered around the county to serve different communities. Boyd, who has an engineering background, says that makes more sense than the setup in Hamilton County, which has sewage piped for miles through hilly terrain to the city of Chattanooga's massive sewage treatment plant at Moccasin Bend.

"Look at the topography of the Hamilton County region," Boyd said. "When you try to move all the sewage to Moccasin Bend, it costs an enormous amount of money to do that."

A draft study of WWTA's proposed Harrison sewage treatment plant has been completed by S&ME, a geotechnical engineering firm with offices in about a dozen states, including two offices in Chattanooga. But the study isn't yet public information, said WWTA Executive Director Mark Harrison, who declined to release it.

Harrison said he's willing to sit down and speak with Boyd about the proposed new treatment plant.

"The idea of sitting down with him and talking about the technology is something I can do," Harrison said. "His idea of these small plants have [merit], but I'll discuss with him why this one needs to be larger."

A number of things are known about the proposed plant, including that WWTA officials want to build it on land near the Birchwood landfill so it won't be near residences. And that the treated sewage, or effluent, would be discharged into the Tennessee River north of Harrison Bay State Park - about 15 miles above the intake for Chattanooga's drinking water supply.

While Hamilton County would issue the bonds to build the plant, that's only because the county's AAA bond rating means it could get a better rate than if WWTA sold bonds, said builder and developer Mike Moon, who's chairman of the WWTA board.

"The county has a AAA rating, so they have a much better rate than we would have in the bond market," Moon said. "We will be paying the bond back, through new connections, that's what would essentially pay [the debt]."

One of the questions that Boyd said he'll ask about the proposed new WWTA plant is if that portion millage rate would be reduced, once WWTA pays off the bonds.

"Is that going to go away? At some point in the time, the customers of WWTA are going to pay this back," Boyd said.

Moon said that if the new plant isn't built, WWTA would have to spend about $43 million on upgrades and fees over the next 20 years to send its sewage to Moccasin Bend for treatment.

It won't hurt the city of Chattanooga to have a new plant built that will absorb some of the flow that otherwise would reach Moccasin Bend, Moon said.

"They have flow constraints in their system and capacity issues in their system," he said. "If we take flow out of their system, it would only be helpful to them."

The proposed new WWTA plant, which initially would serve the area north of Collegedale to Summer Haven, would get residences and businesses there off septic systems, Moon said. That would encourage business development and reduce sprawl because housing can be more dense when it's connected to a sewer system.

"That area of the county it will help density tremendously - that area for septic, you need really big lots," Moon said. "If you can increase your density a little bit, it helps sprawl. Big lots eat up more land."

"This is the fastest-growing area of the county," he added. "It really helps us get back to our mission, our mission of expanded sewers into the unincorporated areas of the county."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at or or on Twitter @meetfor business or 423-757-6651.

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