The Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Treatment Authority's plan to spend $245 million upgrading sewage systems in Hamilton County and some cities has the full weight of Uncle Sam behind it.
The WWTA has acknowledged it is negotiating terms of a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice and Tennessee authorities after years of Clean Water Act violations and millions of gallons of sewage spilled into local creeks and streams.
Chattanooga has been under a similar consent decree since 2013. In its first phase, the city has budgeted more than $264 million and committed to 86 separate projects to stop sewage overflows into the Tennessee River by July 2020.
Now board Chairman Mike Moon says he believes WWTA may be signing its own decree sometime early in 2019 that will mandate around $245 million in fixes and upgrades.
And it's going to come at a cost — Moon said the average residential user, who now pays $54 a month, likely will see 8 percent to 10 percent annual increases over the next decade to pay for repairs and upgrades to sewer systems in East Ridge, Lakesite, Lookout Mountain, Red Bank, Signal Mountain, Soddy-Daisy and the unincorporated county.
The utility is discussing plans to lower rates for customers who use minimal water and to slice its monthly maintenance fee for private lateral service lines from $8 to around $2.
In Chattanooga, rates have risen nearly 10 percent a year since 2012 to pay for the city's own Clean Water Act fix. The average 5,000-gallon user in the city saw rates rise from $25.10 a month in 2011 to around $50 today.
Years of problems
Moon said WWTA has been negotiating with EPA and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation since 2014 and "we're winding it up now."
He said the authority didn't speak publicly about the talks both because legal negotiations customarily are private and to stave off nonprofit environmental groups from getting involved.
"The more people that join in a lawsuit, the more damages you have to pay. Ultimately, customers are the ones that pay for every bit of it," Moon said.
WWTA kept that card hidden even when facing hostile crowds of homeowners in public meetings over plans for a $45 million sewage treatment plant at 7800 Mahan Gap Road and $200 million in other needed improvements.
Executive Director Mark Harrison and consulting engineers at the meetings focused on how a new treatment plant would ease pressure on Chattanooga's Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant and open up 20,000 or so acres in northern Hamilton County for new development.
But the Department of Environment and Conservation has been monitoring multiple overflows from WWTA sewers that inundate local waterways with raw sewage. TDEC warned in early November that new sewer tap-ons in the fast-growing area could be halted after 29 overflows in the past year spilled 2 million gallons of sewage into Rogers Creek.
At the same time, the nonprofit environmental group Tennessee Riverkeeper sued WWTA in federal court for sending some 20 million gallons of sewage from the Signal Mountain wastewater treatment plant to the Tennessee River since 2013.
Moon said the authority doesn't have a choice about whether to fix the problem of sewer overflows that violate the federal Clean Water Act. But signing the consent decree will ensure it has a voice in how the problems are solved, he said.
"Nobody wants to pay and I understand that, I'm a customer as well. I'm on the sewer system. But it would have been a lot easier to stomach lower increases over a long period of time to maintain the system," he said.
"But if we don't consent to it they will take us to federal court and a judge will decide what the remedy is, not us."
If WWTA does sign a federal consent decree, it will have a nearby example to study.
Chattanooga's order took effect in April 2013 after years of complaints and lawsuits about sewage overflows to the Tennessee River from the Moccasin Bend Wastewater treatment plant and the porous and leaky lines serving it.
The Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant takes in waste from 400,000 customers in Chattanooga and eight neighboring communities. The city's sanitary sewer system is ancient in some parts — Public Works Director Justin Holland and Waste Services Division Administrator Jeffrey Rose said they've found wooden and brick sewer lines in the oldest sections of the network — and worn out in others.
The essential problem, Holland and Rose said, is too much water flowing to the plant in wet weather. Moccasin Bend's normal load is about 65 million gallons a day, but it can handle up to 240 million gallons. That's still 20 million gallons less than the sanitary sewer system can deliver during heavy rains that flow into drains and infiltrate sewer lines.
That excess spews up through manholes or spills over at outfalls, dumping waste-contaminated water onto streets and yards, creeks and the river from which Chattanooga residents drink. Just between July 1 and Sept. 30, Chattanooga's required quarterly report to EPA noted 43 sewer overflows and 60 outfall discharges totaling tens of millions of gallons.
David Whiteside, founder of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said lax waste treatment is a problem across Tennessee and local governments haven't willingly stepped up with solutions.
"Tennessee Riverkeeper continues to find illegal sewage discharges, public health threats that are enabled by the failure of government agencies and their leaders. Many of the dirtiest sewage treatment facilities across Tennessee have been in violation of the Clean Water Act for over 5 years, often enabled by weak enforcement actions from [TDEC]," Whiteside said in an email.
"When sewage is discharged into surface water it carries with it bacteria and pathogens that can be a threat to drinking water and public health. Nobody wants putrid sewage contaminating their rivers and streams. It is the 21st century. Tennesseans deserve the reasonable expectation that human waste will be treated safely," he said.
Holland and Rose said Chattanooga's plan is focused around making the plant more efficient and the sewer system less porous, along with reducing the wet-weather flow by storing more water until it can be processed without triggering overflows at the plant or in the collection system.
"The consent decree allowed us to deliver what's best for our system and our city," Holland said.
Crews have inspected more than a million linear feet of sewer line and rehabilitated more than 300,000 feet, mostly by inserting waterproof linings inside them. The city is building or beefing up pump stations to move more water and building or designing multimillion-gallon storage tanks. And it is requiring its other municipal members to upgrade their facilities, as well.
The city reported 361 overflows in 2011. Since the consent decree began in 2013, overflows have fallen by an average of 17 percent a year, records show.
Meanwhile, of 86 planned projects in Phase I, 53 are complete and 15 are under construction, Holland and Rose said. All the details are on the city website at the Consent Decree Public Document Repository.
And "everything we've done so far is exactly on time. That's pretty remarkable, given the complexity of the project," Rose said.
Jason McDonald, spokesman for the EPA Region IV office in Atlanta, said in a email that the city is in "full compliance" with the consent decree.
While the WWTA's consent decree talks are ongoing, it's facing a much closer timeline on its proposed sewage treatment plant.
In early October, Hamilton County commissioners confronted by angry homeowners voted against advancing WWTA $3 million to buy the 157-acre site where it hopes to put the plant.
A group organized as North Hamilton County United for Responsible Growth and representing some 3,500 homeowners within 2 miles of the site has kept the pressure on.
Jennifer McDonald, spokeswoman for the group, said Friday it's "a good thing" that the Justice Department, EPA, TDEC and the Tennessee Attorney General's Office will be overseeing WWTA.
"I feel like WWTA's not going to self-regulate, and they don't have a tremendous amount of oversight," McDonald said.
But that doesn't change the homeowners' rejection of the proposed sewer plant site, she added.
"Sure, it's needed, but the location doesn't make sense," McDonald said. "If there's a spill here, we feel it's going to be catastrophic to the environment."
The Regional Planning Agency voted Nov. 12 to recommend denial of a special permit for the plant, but the decision ultimately rests with the Hamilton County Commission.
The commission's zoning committee will discuss the permit on Dec. 12 and the full panel is scheduled to vote it up or down on Dec. 19.
Commission Chairman Sabrena Smedley said she's already told her colleagues not to schedule anything else for that day.
"I'm going to allow both sides a lot of time to present their case and for us to hear everything," Smedley said Friday.
"I don't think there's a question for any of the commissioners as to whether we have to have it, I think we're fully committed to that. It's just whether that's the best site that's the million-dollar question."
It's not clear whether there are five votes on the commission for the plant site. Commissioner Chester Bankston is aligned with his constituents in opposition. Commissioner Tim Boyd said Friday he thinks WWTA's plan is sound and he intends to support it.
"A little over a week ago, the Commission approved $10 million for a new animal shelter because everyone agreed the need was great. It is my opinion that the need to address the wastewater system in Hamilton County is a much, much greater need and is critical to the economic growth of our county," Boyd said Friday.
Several other commissioners said Friday they are still weighing the balance between the community's passionate opposition and the need to support continued economic growth in Hamilton County.
"Over the next few days I will be looking for answers, but my service to the community is all about creating jobs and creating the environment where men and women can invest their money and grow their businesses," Commissioner Warren Mackey said.
Commissioner David Sharpe said the county "can no longer continue to kick the can down the road."
"The pressing nature of this matter is a direct result of that practice for decades in Hamilton County, and we've got to do a better job," Sharpe said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.