This story was updated Dec. 12, 2018, at 9:18 p.m. with more information.
Hamilton County commissioners mostly didn't tip their hands Wednesday while hearing more than four hours of arguments for and against a new sewage treatment plant in the county's northern end.
"It's going to be a tough decision and we don't take it lightly," Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley said to the full dais and standing-room-only crowd.
County Clerk Bill Knowles said it was the longest commission meeting he's sat through in his 44 years in office.
Opponents cited everything from the spread of deadly bacteria and viruses to plummeting property values and the sewage utility's sorry track record to date as reasons to deny a special permit for the $45 million plant on Mahan Gap Road.
They argued the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority can't explain how the plant will be designed; what, beyond a tree buffer, will protect nearby homes from odor, or how to ensure no sewage leaks into Savannah Bay if there's a spill. Several urged putting the plant in Meigs County, Tennessee.
"We're actually putting a chemical plant in a residential area that just happened to treat sewer. And from that, there are going to be resulting problems. Spills, leaks and odors are going to be a problem," said S.H. "Sandy" Moore, a chemical engineer with 40 years of experience and a double handful of patents. "It will affect our neighborhoods, our churches, our schools, and whatever businesses that locate on Mahan Gap Road."
WWTA's director and a consultant said again that putting the plant anywhere else will push the construction cost up by more than $20 million, raise operating costs by more than half and require more electric pumps and holding tanks to manage the wastewater.
They said they can't start designing the plant and its systems until they have a site, and that not building one at all will limit sewerage and stifle growth in the north end.
The plant is part of a $245 million consent decree being negotiated with the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Justice to stop years of millions of gallons of sewage spilling into creeks and the Tennessee River. The agency has said sewer bills will double over the next eight to 10 years to meet consent decree mandates.
"Our plan is the most environmentally conscious and safest thing to do," said Scott McDonald, WWTA's consultant from the firm SM&E. "The EPA doesn't care about growth. They want stuff fixed, and they want it fixed now."
County commissioners heard all those arguments and more at their agenda session. They're scheduled to vote next week whether to grant the special permit for the site.
Along with many of his constituents, 9th District Commissioner Chester Bankston openly loathes the plant. He sits on the Regional Planning Commission, which weeks ago voted to recommend the county commission deny the special permit.
He's also on the commission's Zoning Committee with Tim Boyd, David Sharpe and alternate Commissioner Katherlyn Geter.
The WWTA's presentation pointed out that all of downtown Chattanooga is within 2.5 miles of the city's Moccasin Bend treatment plant, and there are no reported problems with airborne contaminants or other health issues. The Mahan Gap plant will be a tenth that size and "will take us a long way in the future" as the county grows, Harrison said.
Geter questioned that claim, as well as WWTA's assertion it put the plant in a low-density area. Opponents have said there are 3,500 homes and 7,50o residents within 3 miles of the site.
Geter said she was "greatly concerned" and "disappointed" WWTA hadn't publicly discussed alternate sites before the zoning committee meeting. And she said many residents had shared the authority's history of spills and overflows and questioned its customer service.
Harrison said the utility had failed to raise rates in recent years to pay for improvements and had had troubles when Tennessee American Water quit adding sewer fees to water bills. That's changed under his leadership, he said.
Commissioner Chip Baker said it "sticks in my craw a little" that WWTA can't answer questions about flood dangers and other environmental concerns at the plant site. But he also understood the chicken-and-egg problem, that the utility can't do "due diligence" without a site upon which to do it.
Boyd is in favor of granting the permit. An engineer, Boyd said he's looked into the proposal and visited the site.
Sharpe said the dilemma is that growth brings infrastructure needs with it.
"If we choose to go the cheapest route in one area, does that give us opportunity in another?" asked Sharpe. "If we don't, does that limit our ability to invest in other areas, such as public education? Twenty million dollars is a couple of school buildings."
He may have let slip a clue to his thinking when, late in the meeting, he noted that there will be a lot of people working at the site during construction and he hopes local residents will be among those work crews.
Two groups expressed support for the permit. Representatives with the Homebuilders Association of Greater Chattanooga and the Greater Chattanooga Realtors read statements urging the plant be built at WWTA's chosen site as soon as possible to keep growth going in the county.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.
This story was updated to remove a reference to David Sharpe as a former board of education member.