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Sewer rates for more than 30,000 homes and businesses outside of Chattanooga in Hamilton County will go up 12% next month to pay for ongoing sewer upgrades needed to meet federal water pollution standards.

The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority (WWTA) announced Thursday that county sewer rates will increase by some of the biggest amounts ever even though Chattanooga sewer charges are not going up this fall. The city sewer system, which boosted rates 9.8% a year ago, is forgoing any increase in sewer rates this fall after making a number of upgrades mandated under its consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Michael Patrick, executive director of the WWTA, acknowledged "it's a terrible time to have to raise rates" in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic that has thrown thousands of Chattanooga area workers out of a job.

"But we didn't get to take a Covid break with EPA," he said.

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Michael Patrick / File photo

The WWTA has been negotiating with federal regulators for more than five years to try to reach an agreement on sewer upgrades needed to address ongoing water pollution violations. The WWTA inherited aging sewer systems from seven municipalities and faces other challenges from new developments in areas that don't have sewers and suffer from pollution runoff problems.

Dick Gee, chairman of the WWTA board, said the Hamilton County sewer system typically has more than 200 weather-related sewer overflows every year and last year the WWTA reported over 300 such overflows in violation of EPA regulations.

"The overflows can contaminate local streams and potentially pose a public health risk," he said. "Addressing the issue is costly; however, it is the right thing to do and it is a requirement of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act."

The rate hike will raise another $1.7 million in the next year to help fund more work on about 20 major projects in nearly all areas served by the WWTA. Over the next five years, WWTA expects to have to spend $15 million or more every year on projects to comply with EPA mandates. Ultimately, the county sewer authority expects it will have to spend about $245 million to address all of the problems in its sewer system.

Hamilton County government will provide WWTA about $17 million of an upcoming $63.6 million bond issue to finance some of the initial upgrades.

Similar to the 2013 agreement the city of Chattanooga reached with EPA, the WWTA anticipates it will take 15 to 20 years to complete the EPA required improvements.

Sewer rehabilitation projects are currently underway in East Ridge, Lookout Mountain, Ooltewah, Red Bank, and Soddy Daisy. Additional projects are in the planning stage that will correct significant deficiencies on Signal Mountain, Patrick said.

"The WWTA has worked hard to keep sewer fees as low as possible throughout its history," Patrick said. "Unfortunately, we are at the point where we can no longer put off making significant improvements to our critical sewer infrastructure."

Created in 1993 by the Hamilton County Commission, the WWTA is composed of over 500 miles of collection lines, 60 pump stations and 900 grinder pumps. The city's Moccasin Bend Sewage Plant treats most of the sewage from WWTA.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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